Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp.; Albert Lemus, SVP of Lowe Enterprises; Robert T. De Forest, founder and managing principal of the Pinyon Group; and Ben Stapleton, VP at JLL speak on the L.A. River Panel.

LOS ANGELES—At the USC Gould Real Estate Law and Business Forum last week, city leaders and development experts discussed the possibilities of the L.A. River becoming the city’s Central Park. Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp.; Robert T. De Forest, founder and managing principal of the Pinyon Group; Albert Lemus, SVP of Lowe Enterprises; Guy Lipa, associate director of infrastructure services at the City of Los Angeles’ Office of the Mayor; and Ben Stapleton, VP at JLL spoke about the L.A. River development potential on a panel moderated by moderated by Timi Anyon Hallem of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP.

Many of the panel’s speakers pointed to river revitalization projects in other cities that have experienced extraordinary successes, including Portland, OR, and San Antonio, TX. These projects renewed the city, created a community experience and were drivers for adjacent developments. Due to its geography, the L.A. River could connect all of L.A.’s community and outdoor points of interest, from Griffith Park to the San Gabriel basin. “L.A. gets knocked for being a fragmented city, and now we have this one resource that could be our “Central Park,” said Brownson, adding that the river development would consist of a series of smaller development projects to create river walks, bike lanes and equestrian bridges.

To develop community areas around the river or to create a “waterfront” experience, the city will have to undo the concrete structure that was built around it by the US Army Corps Engineers. The L.A. River is a seasonal river that floods when there is rainfall. In the 1930s, the city looked at inexpensive options to control the water flow, and hired the army corps to pack it in concrete and create a flood channel, which was successful but very unattractive. Now, the city is working to find an alternative solution to the flooding issue that will allow the community to continue using the river for recreational purposes.

The first step to development along the river—which will take 30 to 40 years before it is complete—is the Los Angeles River Improvement Overlay zone. The proposed overlay would set out and redefine guidelines for development within a half-mile, or 2,500 feet, of water. The city has been working on the plan since 2008, and it is scheduled to go up for a vote in April. At this point, there are some community plans underway and tons of ideas floating back and forth, but everything will change as these guidelines shift to meet the needs and concerns of the community surrounding the river.

Meeting the community’s needs is one of the project’s biggest hurdles. The river is 51 miles long, stretching from Topanga Canyon Boulevard in the west to Boyle Heights in the south and Griffith Park in the North. Residents of every community have different concerns about how development might affect the community. “This is a challenging model because the development would benefit everyone, not just those who live alongside the river, so who should pay for it,” said the panel moderator Hallem. JLL’s Stapleton also added that residents along the river are also concerned they will be priced out of their homes once and if the river development raises property values.

Of course, the biggest hurdle of the project is the cost. “We talk about how amazing it would be to complete this project, but to get to that point, we are talking about a billion dollars just for an 11-mile stretch,” says Lipa. He explains that this is the kind of project you have to pay forward even though it will take decades to complete. His office is aggressively lobbying to secure funding for this project. 

Although there are several challenges to a project of this size, the long-term benefits are endless. “There is no acquisition needed for this space,” says De Forest. “This makes too much sense not to happen, so it is going to happen. The question is just how is it going to happen and when.”

The all-day forum covered several topics from development to finance trends. Earlier in the day, Leanne Lachman, president of Lachman and Associates, sat down with a group of millennials to discuss consumer trends of Gen Y, who are looking for a unique experience above all. Gen Y consider themselves urban, like to travel and value time over goods. As the largest consumer group in the country, it is important to recognize and adapt to this new audience for success.