A Creek Runs Through it

 

 


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Architecture Professor Robert Harris
Robert Harris and a group of undergraduate architecture students spent a semester studying how Culver City could make better use of Ballona Creek. Culver City officials still refer to it as “that dam concept.” Scornful as that may sound, local politicians were actually delighted with USC architecture professor Robert Harris and his students’ scheme to capitalize on the city’s location along the banks of Ballona Creek.
So much so that council mem-bers last month adopted some of the plan’s key concepts, such as damming the creek – a paved branch of the Los Angeles River that’s dry for most of the year.
“It’s time for Culver City to take a leadership role in saying this resource can’t be wasted, and Dr. Harris and his students have helped us think about what that could be,” said Culver City mayor Sandra Levin.

The proposal was the outgrowth of a class project for Architecture 402, a required undergraduate course for majors. The dozen students enrolled in the course dug up the history of Ballona Creek, researched other cities on waterways (Paris, Venice), canvassed Culver City residents, consulted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and extensively walked, poked and photo-graphed the creek and its environs.
The vision they ended up with is less reminiscent of St. Petersburg than San Luis Obispo.
“While the students wanted to orient more of the town’s life around the river,” Harris says, “they realized that too much development would never be appropriate since the creek is adjacent to numerous residential neighborhoods.”
So they settled for making the creek, which was once the community’s life blood, a civic focal point once again.
The area’s first human inhabitants – Los Gabriel-enos, the Gabrieleno Indians – used to hunt and camp along the arroyo.
Later, Thomas Ince de-cided to establish his Culver Studios there, so that he could use the picturesquely meandering Ballona Creek as a backdrop for movies. But the stream lost a good bit of its charm in 1935, when the U.S. Corps of Engineers decided to line it with concrete in res-ponse to perpetual flooding problems.
“Instead of feeling the presence of water, what you see now is concrete walls with a somewhat scruffy bottom,” says Harris, a longtime champion of the Los Angeles River.
“There’s a bike path. But it could be so much more. It’s a wasted linear park.”

Among other things, the students called for adding restaurants and specialty stores by the creek; establishing parks along its shores; supplementing the bike path on the north side with a corresponding bike path on the south side; and studding the concrete embankment with planted trees, flowers and grasses.
Perhaps the most audacious proposal calls for installing two inflatable dams in the culvert at either end of the city. During the rainy season, the dams would trap water that otherwise runs to the Pacific, creating a sort of canal. Similar dams are employed on less conspicuous stretches of the Los Angeles River.
“There might be boats and canoes,” says Harris. “It could be really wonderful.”
But wouldn’t damming the culvert put residents on either bank at risk for floods during heavy rains?
“If there’s a lot of water coming downstream, you can deflate the dams by pulling the plug,” Harris says. “The water would pass through and head for the ocean.”

City officials determined that any recommendations that threaten the residential character of the creek would be a hard sell to residents, but they were enthusiastic about ideas to improve the waterway’s appearance.
In all, the city council adopted seven long-range goals reflecting recommendations by Harris and his students. Those included making incremental improvements that “will facilitate eventual res-toration of Ballona Creek as a natural waterway and as a linear park.”
Council members also agreed in principle to create a network of open spaces for pedestrians and cyclists along the river. The council even decided to investigate the students’ most adventuresome recommendation – damming the creek.
Harris, at his most sanguine, sees the project as a testbed for what could happen elsewhere on the Los Angeles River.
“Right now it’s just a promise,” he says. “But this may ultimately prove to be a kind of demonstration for recapturing the opportunities of our waterways.”

 

Meg Sullivan


 

 

 

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

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