Army Corps Recommends $1B Restoration of Ryan Gosling, John Travolta L.A. River Movie Landmark

LA River Redevelopment

The Los Angeles River, a staple in movies from 'Transformers' to 'Drive,' will become an eco and family-friendly greenway with more than 230 projects in progress to transform the industrially polluted and debris-laden concrete channel.

It’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in L.A. John Travolta drag-raced through it in Grease (1978). Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox hid in the shadows of a bridge crossing it in Transformers (2007). Ryan Gosling asked Carey Mulligan, “Do you wanna see something?” and took her on a shortcut home from Reseda along its empty, concrete banks in Drive (2011). Not to mention its frequent appearances in TV shows (from Starsky and Hutch to 24) and music videos by Kanye West (“Jesus Walks”) and Maroon 5 (“Wake Up Call”), among others.

But the Los Angeles River’s day as a scruffy setting for car chases and clandestine meetings is coming to an end. Despite its fame, the 51-mile-long river, which starts in Canoga Park and ends in Long Beach, has suffered from an identity crisis for more than 75 years -- ever since it was channelized in the 1930s after continued flooding compelled Congress to order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the river and line it with concrete. Once a free-flowing source of water and food, the river has turned into a flood-control gulch splattered with reclaimed wastewater, storm drain puddles, industrial pollution and debris. (And years of drought haven’t helped.) 

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“It’s hard to differentiate between the waterway and the freeway,” said Mia Lehrer on May 30 as an aerial photo of the city flashed on a large screen beside her. The noted landscape designer, who has created gardens for Dustin Hoffman and Jamie Lee Curtis, joined environmental designer Cynthia Hirschhorn to talk about “Revitalizing the L.A. River” as part of the three-day exhibition, “Dwell on Design,” at the L.A. Convention Center.  

For 20 years, Lehrer has supported L.A. River efforts and led the design of the L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan, which was completed in 2007 and provides a vision for the river’s future — though full implementation will take years. "We will see a huge difference along the river areas in the next 10 years, and the transformation will be extremely palpable in 20," Lehrer tells THR. Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended approval of an ambitious, $1-billion proposal to restore natural habitat, create wetlands and provide bike trails along an 11-mile stretch north of downtown through Elysian Park.  A review will be held in Washington, D.C. in July.

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Like New York’s High Line park or San Antonio’s waterfront, the revitalization of the L.A. River is seen as a galvanizing event. There are already more than 230 projects in various stages of progress along the river. "There is a project ground-breaking or ribbon-cutting at least once a month,“ Lehrer says. We have the opportunity to create a great linear park that can connect us all and bring the city together,” says Hirschhorn, who is developing flowproject.la to cultivate civic arts along the river. “We want to enhance civic spaces with public art and urban gardens.” 

The ultimate hope is that the greenway will connect diverse neighborhoods and provide river-friendly spaces for people to live, work and play. “In Southern California everybody has their own oasis. It’s hard to relate to a common good,” Lehrer says. “This can be that magnet that can bring things together for the next generation.”  

CORRECTED 1:53 p.m., June 29: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that a scene from Terminator 2 was shot on the L.A. River.

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