Will cleaning up Echo Park Lake wipe away its historic landscape?

By Todd Walker

The drainage and clean up of Echo Park Lake won’t begin for about a year but some residents have already begun to express concerns that the $84 million project is being planned without sufficient attention to the park’s historic landscape.

The image of the park’s lake ringed by palms as well as pine trees has appeared in century-old postcards, silent movies as well as modern-day films and television shows. The park been designated as a city historic-cultural monument and has been identified as being eligible for state and national historic landmark status. But the Echo Park Lake Rehabilitation Project, which is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2010 under the direction of the city’s Department of Public Works, is focused primarily on improving the lake’s water quality – not on preserving the historic landscape.

“We have a tunnel-vision project going on and we should really take a broader look,” says Michael O’Brien, a landscape architect and Echo Park resident.

O’Brien, who has been involved in several neighborhood development and planning issues, worries that construction work will require the removal of “somewhere south of a hundred” trees that stand a few feet, and, in some cases, only a few inches, from the water’s edge. Many of those trees are considered insignificant or were to be removed regardless of construction. However, a small number, particularly the bald cypresses on the west bank (bottom photo) and the palm trees on the north side of the lake are critical to the park’s historic character, says O’Brien.

“That’s the thing about historic,” he says. “Once a part of your cultural heritage disappears, it’s gone forever.”

The removal of the trees could be avoided by using an alternative approach to the construction of the lake’s retaining walls, according to O’Brien. But he says this alternative does not appear to be under consideration.

O’Brien has also raised the issue of the proposed wetlands to be planted around the island in the north end of the lake, and along the lake’s edge in several other locations. Those wetlands are designed to help filter and clean the water and, in the view of many, there seems to be no other economically feasible alternative. The creation of wetlands, however, is not necessarily faithful to the historic appearance of the lake, an issue that has also been raised by the city’s Office of Historic Resources, which is charged with protecting the city’s historic landmarks.

“The design concepts presented to date show a potential adverse impact to the historic character of the lake and the lake edge as it relates to the simplicity of the open body of the water that is a character-defining feature of the historic resource,” said Office of Historic Resources architect Lambert Giessinger in a letter to the Department of Public Works. “Modifying the lake’s edge and introduction of new wetland areas may be an unavoidable adverse impact.”

Alfred Mata, the project manager from the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Engineering, says he understands these concerns, but that no plans are yet final. “We are in the process of preparing the draft Environmental Impact Report, which will be complete at the end of January or early February. Then there will be a 45 day public review period.” At that point, he says, any concerns about the project’s impact can be addressed.

“There has been a long process to get his project developed,” says Mata. “Everything we’ve done has been keeping in mind the way the lake looked during the period of historical significance. We’re also trying to save trees where we can. We’re going to try to save the two trees [the bald cypresses] on the west side of the lake – they’re significant, and very mature. We’re looking to modify the lake edge there to go around them. The irony is, we’re restricted in how much we can do that by the historic nature of the lake, but we’re going to do what we can.”

O’Brien will be keeping an eye on the project.

“I have no objection to the goals of the project whatsoever,” he says, “but altering an historic resource should be given considerably more thought.”

– Todd Walker is a writer and filmmaker living in Echo Park.

Top image from HistoricEchoPark.org

One comment

  1. Loss of trees? Is that actually part of the plan, or are you saying that YOU speculate there will be loss of trees?

    There certainly in no reason to lose any trees. This is not the first time they have emptied and dredged and rehabbed the lake, and there didn’t need to lose trees or other plantings in the previous efforts, the last one about 25 years ago.

    The lake needs to be cleaned; the park does NOT need to be altered to accomplish that any more now than than it did in the past.

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