Gentrification comes to the L.A. River

For decades, the Los Angeles River was a kind of civic embarrassment to L.A., the butt of jokes and the waterway that many Angelenos forgot even existed. If people wanted to see a great and beloved urban river, they’d go to Paris for the Seine or to London to gawk at the Thames.

But the L.A. River’s reputation and fortunes are turning around. Looking long term, there’s a billion dollar plan on the table to revitalize the river, including tearing out its concrete banks and returning the waterway to a more natural state. There’s also talk, supported by a new UCLA study, about how thousands of new apartments for a housing-starved city could be built along the river banks.

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The Los Angeles River stretches for about 50 miles between the Simi Hills and Long Beach. For years, activists and local officials talked about removing its concrete banks and restoring the natural habitat. Those plans now seem closer to a reality, especially through the Elysian Valley, also known as Frogtown, where the waterway still has a natural bottom.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

These big plans, supported by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, have been preceded by years of smaller changes along the river, especially a four-mile stretch of it through Elysian Valley, more commonly called Frogtown. Here, visitors can enjoy such amenities as a well-maintained bike path, riverside pocket parks, summer kayaking expeditions down the river, and outdoor community gathering places like the Frog Spot, where visitors can eat and drink at communal tables while listening to live music on the weekends.

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Frogtown has been the starting place for many people’s rediscovery of the L.A. River, thanks to such amenities as a bike path, riverside pocket parks, and kayak excursions on the waterway during the summer months. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

But these changes might just be a taste of things to come as property developers and investors look to the working class neighborhoods of Frogtown and see fortune and opportunity as the L.A. River becomes a more attractive destination.

“I would say in the last 18 months to 24 months, there has been a huge change in the neighborhood,” says Richard Rohr, a real estate broker who’s been involved in land sales in Elysian Valley, or Frogtown, since the early 1980s. Rohr says even during past L.A. real estate booms, properties in the neighborhood generally remained affordable. But as plans move forward to restore the L.A. River, and developers look for good deals in a rapidly gentrifying city, that’s all over. “Prices have just skyrocketed in the last two years. I wish I had a Ouija board and knew what was going to take place,” he says.

And what’s taking place? In a neighborhood that’s now a mix of modest single family homes and light manufacturing, new and pricey riverside apartments are being built, and there are plans on the drawing boards for stores, restaurants, even a stylish craft brewery. Walk around Frogtown and it’s easy to spot real estate types sizing up properties and talking on their cellular phones.

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New development projects are becoming a common sight in Frogtown, such as this nearly complete condo complex right next to the L.A. River bike path. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

“I see a huge potential, something like the Portland waterfront,” says architect Vijay Sehgal, whose firm is building gleaming new offices for itself in Frogtown, with an adjacent bistro. The land for the project was bought two years ago, and Sehgal says it was done just in time.

“Looking back at Frogtown right now, there is no way we could have bought anything in today’s prices,” says Sehgal. “We couldn’t compete.”

But as new development gains momentum in Frogtown, many longtime residents, who are mostly Latino, worry that they’ll be displaced by soaring rents and new businesses. They’re also concerned about a change in the community character if boutique stores and hipster coffeehouses open their doors.

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New development along the L.A. River has sparked a community backlash from residents who fear they’ll be priced out. Many weekends, you can find Alejandro Palomino protesting gentrification. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

“What I don’t want to see is my community gentrified and people hurt. I don’t want to see that,” says Alejandro Palomino. He’s lived in Elysian Valley for 20 years and often spends his weekends hanging homemade signs along the L.A. River blasting gentrification.

“It’s considered a poor community, so by us trying to compete with wealthier people, people with better jobs, we don’t stand a chance,” says Palomino.” I am not against progress. I welcome other people to come and buy their houses and live happily. We welcome that. What we don’t welcome is developers without ethics or respect for anyone, coming and invading this area and displacing people.”

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Run by Friends of the Los Angeles. River, the Frog Spot is attempting to serve as a community crossroads for residents of Frogtown. It’s a place where people can enjoy  food, drink and live music and discuss the community’s present and future.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

One place that’s trying to serve as a bridge between current residents of Frogtown and new arrivals is the Frog Spot, which is operated by the non-profit group the Friends of the Los Angeles River. FoLAR’s Joanna Hackett says she hopes the riverside neighborhood remains affordable and welcoming to all, but she sees no signs of gentrification slowing down.

“It has happened, and we can’t stop it,” says Hackett. ” It has wheels and its going. The wheels are on and its hard to take it off at this point.”