06 Feb CD4 City Council Candidates Respond to River Questionnaire
In the spirit of encouraging robust participation in our local democracy, Friends of the LA River distributed a five-subject questionnaire to all certified candidates for public office in Council Districts 2, 4, 12 and 14. Find your Council District here. The following responses were received from candidates in CD4. Read their responses below.
FoLAR: In 30 years, dramatic changes have occurred on the Los Angeles River that have created new spaces for public to gather, and for plant and wildlife habitat. Public interest in seeing a vibrant restoration of the LA River is evergrowing and stretches of the River in Council District 14 will be central to restoration efforts. Please share your vision for the River’s future and what you see as the ideal balance between nature and infrastructure.
Sarah Kate Levy: I would like our river to become a major symbol of Los Angeles, as the natural and metaphorical ribbon that ties all our diverse communities together on a continuum across our region. Our river should be the thing that connects us, a gathering place, a place of learning, of recreation, of celebration — the premium destination for all Angelenos, as a place to reconnect to our own natural ecosystem, and to take refuge from the pressures of our city, in a way that is financially and physically accessible to all.
I would like to see parks, bike paths, running paths, spaces for larger gatherings, opportunities to sample local vendors, visit a ranger center, or take a kayak tour of our city. Because the river runs through so much of my district, restoring habitat and access to the river would be a major boon for my community.
Our city is so special because of all the natural beauty that surrounds us — but water is and has always been the element that defines us, from the early days of our orange groves to our challenges with drought and our new plans to improve our watershed and recapture water via Measure W. Our river is the ultimate expression of our relationship to water in this city — and revitalizing our river, peeling away the concrete, creating park space, improving habitat, and offering recreation opportunities for all — should be a priority for this city, if we are serious about leading on issues of sustainability, conservation, and public space for all.
Nithya Raman: Los Angeles is starved for public green space: our city ranks at the bottom of US cities in terms of access to and spending on parks. The efforts around river restoration are our most powerful attempt to expand our city’s natural lands — it’s a vital project for the well-being of residents and to make LA more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
My philosophy for the river is built around the core concepts of equitable access and maximization of the river’s natural habitats and hydrology. That means giving all Angelenos the opportunity to enjoy this resource, with as little development as possible to allow the river’s plant and animal life to thrive.
We’re putting a billion dollars into this project — let’s work with intention and pursue an outcome that will be healthiest for Angelenos and the environment in the long term. The restoration must be exactly that: a restoring of as much of the river’s original flow and ecology as we can. It shouldn’t just be a beautification project. Every planning decision should be mindful of maintaining the health of the river’s entire watershed — and when restoration comes up against commercialization, restoration must win out.
At the same time, intensive efforts must be made to ensure lower-income Angelenos aren’t left out in the process. If done right, the river will significantly improve multiple neighborhoods — let’s make sure residents of these neighborhoods actually get to stay to enjoy it. River-adjacent neighborhoods need special displacement protections, and when it comes to new construction near the river (but not on it), affordability covenants must be prioritized as a check against the forces of real estate speculation.
David Ryu: I share the vision that Lewis MacAdams had in 1986 when he declared the River to be open to Angelenos of all walks of life, and I’m constantly inspired by the work that FoLAR has been doing for more than 30 years to restore the natural ecology of the River and mobilizing the City, philanthropy and residents to repair and preserve its natural habitat and fight for the policies that will maintain equitable access. My vision for the LA River is similar to my views on park space, which were formed as a child growing up in East Hollywood. The few parks I had access to were cherished. Parks don’t ask for immigration status. They don’t ask how much money your parents make or what kind of job they have. Parks don’t put one group before another, because parks belong to all of us. Council District 4 includes one of the longest stretches of River in the City and I am personally invested in its full revitalization. This means prioritizing ecosystem restoration, ensuring that development along the River is consistent with its identity, that it provides for safe and equitable public access, maximizes mobility and recreation opportunities, and is affordable. I believe that River-adjacent infrastructure can complement our work around revitalization, and I’m committed to continuing the work I’ve done during my first term, and as Chair of the City’s Health, Education, Neighborhoods, Parks, Arts and River Committee, to close gaps, increase connectivity, and ensure the ecological health of the LA River comes first.
FoLAR: The City is underway designing the usage of 42 acres of open space at Taylor Yards G2. Last year, they put forward three preliminary design concepts, FoLAR published an op-ed calling for the abandonment of one of the options and supporting the two options that offer concrete removal at the site. To date, over 3,000 supporters have signed FoLAR’s petition calling for concrete removal at the G2 site. What is your preferred design option and why?
Sarah Kate Levy: I prefer Soft Edge. While I can imagine the appeal of an island, as seen in Island, I think that Soft Edge offers more programming opportunities for all ages. The play area is larger, and the continuity of the site makes this plan very family-friendly. I think it is imperative that families see our river as a destination that is enjoyable and accessible for their children, as the children who visit our river will grow to be the adults who fight to protect and improve it.
Nithya Raman: Taylor Yards is among the most important components of the river restoration project — the size of the lot is sufficient to allow the river to flow freely and retain some of its natural floodplain. Of all the areas of the river, this is the one where we should be attempting to recreate as much of the original hydrology and biodiversity of the river as possible.
I agree that the “Yards” option should be tossed entirely — it’s an extraordinary waste of an opportunity. My preferred design is the “Island.” This option, to me, strikes the best balance between human access and protection of natural habitats.
Through my time at SELAH, the neighborhood homeless services non-profit I co-founded, I’ve spent a lot of time at various islands on the river where people have set up encampments. I’ve seen how, even surrounded by people and a concrete channel, animal and plant life has managed to maintain a hold. I would be thrilled to see what could develop on a dedicated wildlife refuge that also allows opportunities for humans to observe it.
David Ryu: The Taylor Yards G2 site sits at the heart of the City’s L.A. River Revitalization Plan, which includes an 11-mile stretch of River and offers an incredible opportunity to renew habitat and create green space for residents in adjacent neighborhoods along San Fernando Road, Cypress Park and Glassell Park, and Elysian Valley. How we move forward with the project will shape the City’s goals, values and expectations for how we approach the rest of the River. Therefore, I believe it is critical that we get the design of this 42 acre site and the revitalization of this stretch of River right.
I believe that the soft edge design made up of native plants and treatment ponds that would also functions as a floodplain, and the goals of access, flood control and public safety are not mutually-exclusive. The project is complex to say the least, but as stewards of the LA River, we have a responsibility to its habitat and to the revitalization of its natural state, and I believe we can achieve this goal as well as increasing access, education and recreation with the soft edge design.
FoLAR: River advocates have successfully pushed state and city agencies to see their adjacent park lands in the mid-River a part of 100 continuous acres of open space. A private luxury development, known as Casitas Lofts, threatens access at the north end of the 100 continuous acres, and has inspired a coalition of advocates to oppose this development, as is. Please explain how you would balance the need for housing development, with environmental health and restoration, climate resilience, and equitable public access to our natural resources with respect to River-adjacent developments.
Sarah Kate Levy: I am running on a very pro-housing platform, but I believe our river should be a jewel that is protected from any housing development that would impede upon access to, or views of, our river. I believe new development at the river should be sited at large setbacks to the river, and oriented in such a way that access to our river is convenient and publicly accessible.
We must protect our river from any risks that housing can bring to the habitat on the river, and our watershed — trash, sewer, parking residues, and construction run-off are all concerns that should be taken very seriously as we embark upon any housing developments along the river. Development near the river should elevate and enhance the experience of the river, opening that experience to more people, rather than dwarfing the river, or limiting access to fewer Angelenos.
Nithya Raman: The Casitas Lofts development is a good example of a troubling reality the river project has faced since it was first proposed — when beautification and restoration come, real estate speculation follows.
The neighborhoods around the River, already dealing with rising rents, have faced even greater gentrification pressure as investors buy up properties that are sure to gain value as the restoration project steadily moves forward. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t restore the river to its natural beauty. It means we should do it carefully, with deliberate measures to ensure equitable access.
I’m a committed advocate for new housing construction in Los Angeles — in particular affordable construction, so that we can begin to fill even a fraction of the deficit of 500,000 affordable units we face in the region. But it’s simply disingenuous to suggest that locating a development next to the Bowtie is designed to address our housing crisis. It is designed to reap the greatest profit for investors.
We must ensure that both current residents and new lower-income residents are able to live in stable, affordable housing in the neighborhoods surrounding what will be one of our city’s most celebrated features. I’m in favor of expanding opportunities for multifamily development in the surrounding neighborhood, provided there are strong displacement protections, and a significant percentage of the new housing comes with deeded affordability covenants. However, the Casitas Lofts project and any other large commercial or residential development on a lot so close to the park and directly adjacent to the river seems to go against the twin goals of ecological restoration and access.
David Ryu: Revitalization, equitable access and affordability should be guiding principles for any residential or commercial development adjacent to the River. The Casitas Lofts Project could be a shining example of these principles and of what we expect of development along the River. Unfortunately, there appears to be issues with the project’s location in a historic flood plain, it could impinge upon habitat restoration, create challenges for ingress and egress at the site, and it lacks the amount of affordable units that we should expect of a development of this size.
While there are positive attributes to the project that can’t be discounted, namely the cleanup of an industrial site and the construction of bike trails, I am supportive of FoLAR’s efforts to address environmental concerns, issues of ingress and egress, and to increase the project’s percentage of affordable units. At a time when the City is grappling with an unprecedented homelessness crisis and a related crisis of affordability, we should be demanding more of development in the City of Los Angeles.
FoLAR: Los Angeles City and the US Army Corps of Engineers agreed in 2016 to an ambitious ecological restoration plan along the LA River (also known as ARBOR). Currently LA County is conducting an update to its own River Master Plan with the intention of ““synthesizing more recent ideas for portions of the River and bringing a comprehensive vision to the transformation of the LA River.” Questions remain unanswered however as to how ARBOR will be realized within the County’s new updated plan. Please explain how, in your capacity as an elected city leader, you view these plans interacting, and your priority for planning City-sections of the River.
Sarah Kate Levy: A comprehensive vision for the river must prioritize remediation of toxic sites by the river, and restoration of habitat, so that the river is healthy, and can remain so. Only a healthy river can anchor the public programming that we would all like to see take place along its banks. The challenge for any elected is maximizing program with dollars available — and the only way to increase dollars available is to convince the tax-paying public that restoration of our river is a priority on par with other great challenges, such as addressing homelessness, and updating our aging infrastructure.
I believe that our river is worth it, and I believe the priority for the City-sections should be ecological restoration coupled with public access, because the more accessible the river is, the more easily it will enter the public imagination as a priority for care.
I also believe that a case can be made for a healthy and vibrant river as a metaphor for a healthy and vibrant city — that we can not have one without the other.
I am running on housing, transit, and trees as a jobs, economy, and climate action plan. The river offers extraordinary opportunities for mobility, as a kayaking and cycling destination, as well as park space, and as such, fits nicely into my vision for a city that offers refuge and healthy community space for all.
Nithya Raman: It was a hard-fought victory for river advocates when the City and the Army Corps of Engineers agreed on the Alternative 20 option from the ARBOR study — the most ambitious plan that restored the most of the river’s original habitat. If the County wants to see a “comprehensive vision” for the river’s restoration, they need to get on board with that plan.
The County’s involvement is essential because much of the river’s enormous watershed is found outside LA City borders. To consider the entire watershed holistically, as any River Master Plan should, will require extensive coordination between multiple government bodies. My work in homelessness has shown me just how difficult cooperation and coordination between the county and city can be. But this project is too important to let poor communication get in the way. A joint powers authority may be in order to make sure the various plans are properly lined up. Most importantly, we need to establish clear lines of accountability and leadership to ensure success, something that must be negotiated clearly between County and City leadership. As a council member, I will be committed to ensuring that we have those discussions with the County to establish such leadership and accountability.
Right now, I’m also a little concerned that marquee architecture firms have been selected to lead the update of the County Master Plan, rather than ecologists and other experts in natural science — if the river project becomes more about beautification than restoration of the river’s ecology and hydrology, we’ll have misspent hundreds of millions of dollars. By focusing on the river’s natural watershed and restoring as much habitat as possible, we’ll achieve both a more beautiful and healthier city.
David Ryu: I applaud and support the work of the County to update its LA River Master Plan. Approaching revitalization, ecological sustainability, access and connectivity, and development in a holistic way ensures that individual projects, some of which are already underway, adhere to a common set of values and goals. ARBOR needs to be taken into consideration, particularly in the work being conducted by Master Plan team members Geosyntec and OLIN which are responsible for all technical elements, including hydrology, flood protection and other water issues and developing corridor-level design and planning standards. As Chair of the City’s Health, Education, Neighborhoods, Parks, Arts and River Committee, I’ve been working hand-in-hand with the Mayor’s office to ensure our ecological restoration plan is front and center in the County’s Master Plan process, with the goal of prioritizing ecological sustainability, habitat restoration and revitalizing the River without undue emphasis being placed on county, city, or district boundaries.
FoLAR: This April marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, and FoLAR’s 31st annual Great LA River CleanUp. Every year, 6,000 volunteers come together to make a positive impact on our River’s health by removing plastic waste from our urban ecosystem. Individual volunteers are doing their part, but greater government action is needed. Please share your plans for reducing plastics and shifting the culture of waste in the City of Los Angeles.
Sarah Kate Levy: There is no question that we need to reduce the usage of single use plastic materials in our city. Even with our best efforts, most of the plastic we try to recycle ends up in landfills because the resale market has fallen apart with China banning scrap materials from the US, and we’ve recently seen the closing of our biggest California recycling concern, too.
Clearly, we have to work to stop single-use plastic (and EPS styrofoam) at the source. We have bans for plastic bags and straws in place — which require better enforcement — and the city is now trying to ban the sale of water bottles on city owned property. These are good starts.
Here are some other strategies we could try:
- Support and expand installation of water-fill stations throughout our city, so people don’t have to buy bottles of water.
- Pilot out reverse-vending machines, where people can recycle bottles they do buy, for cash, which is one strategy for keeping plastic out of landfills.
- Support and recognize local retailers and restaurants that phase out single-use plastics; I know of one start-up operating in CD4 that is doing just that! And I would love to live in a city where it was the norm to bring our own containers to restaurants and grocery stores.
- Get serious about trash dumping in this city, to keep plastic from our watershed – and get serious about keeping homelessness encampments clean, as well (this is one more reason we need safe parking and safe campsites, so we can keep our sidewalks clear and clean)!
- Advocate for state laws like SB54 and AB1080.
Nithya Raman: The question of how we deal with plastics has become all the more acute in the context of China’s refusal to accept many materials including mixed paper and most plastics. Municipal recycling programs are being forced to pay high prices to continue, or are folding entirely as the economics of recycling no longer make sense for cash-strapped local governments, meaning that all plastics are simply thrown into the landfills. Recently, the state of CA attempted to ban single-use plastics through SB54 and AB 1080. While two bills intended to support the struggling recycling industry did pass, single-use plastic legislation did not, falling in the face of intense lobbying efforts by industry players.
In this context, I believe that our city could show leadership in responding to both reducing plastics, and in changing the culture around waste production. Cities have led the way on many environmental initiatives. For example, just last year, Mexico City passed a ban on single-use plastics, with a phase-in period to allow small shop owners and street vendors the ability to phase in new products. Such a ban could be passed in the city of Los Angeles as well. Additionally the City of LA could partner with municipalities throughout LA County or with the County itself to collectively pass a ban on single-use plastics.
Yet, whether at the City level or at the state level, the same forces operating to prevent bans are also working locally. For example, Dart Container, a single-use styrofoam company, has been making donations and behested payments to multiple Councilmembers including CD4 incumbent David Ryu in an effort to head off styrofoam bans in LA.
I strongly believe that real change at City Hall around urgent environmental issues like banning single-use plastics and reducing consumer waste will only happen when there is real campaign finance reform at the city level, and when industries that seek to influence city policymaking are no longer financing city elected officials. Getting corporate money out of politics and moving towards fully publicly financed elections is an essential step towards changing the culture around waste in LA.
David Ryu: With a planned 40-percent increase in plastic production over the next decade, plastic production will account for 20 percent of global fossil fuel consumption unless we make major policy changes to counter. Plastics waste is one of our River’s and our planet’s greatest challenges. While the City of Los Angeles and State of California have been at the forefront of efforts to ban the use of plastics, such as plastic straws and single use plastic bags, more needs to be done. The City is currently working on the elimination of single-use plastics in all city facilities and programs, as well as evaluating the impacts of our new strawson-request ordinance and the single-use plastic bag ban. I am also proud to support efforts in Sacramento such as AB 1080 and SB 54 which sets goals to reduce waste from single-use packaging and ensures the remaining items are effectively recycled. But recycling won’t save us. The aim of the City should be to eliminate single-use plastics altogether and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues, state and federal representatives, and FoLAR to achieve this goal.