Silver Lake finds out what it’s like on the other side of the reservoir fence

For the first time since William Mulholland brought water to the Silver Lake and Ivanhoe Reservoirs in 1906, the City of Los Angeles has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform these spaces into a new public resource.  It begins today, Thursday, June 27, when the City’s Department of Water and Power and Bureau of Engineering hold the first of six “master planning” meetings to envision a new future for the now-defunct, 127-acre Silver Lake Reservoirs Complex that currently lies locked behind ten-foot rusted barbed wire fences.

This Master Plan process requires a bold vision, but it is threatened by small thinking. A number of community members are clamoring to simply let the Reservoirs Complex lie dormant as a concrete and asphalt waste. Some of these voices belong to closed-minded opponents to any kind of change. Others come from groups making a sham argument that an untouched concrete complex is a wildlife sanctuary. It is not.

There is no room for the former in a diverse city like Los Angeles, and certainly not in a diverse and progressive neighborhood like Silver Lake. And while wildlife preservation should be an important part of any final proposal, the civic and social opportunities at the Reservoirs Complex are just too great to leave so much else aside. Los Angeles does not need another monument to be peered at through fences, but not actually experienced or used by the people who live there.

We can and we must do both.

Instead of a limited proposal, the Angelenos who comprise our organization believe the Master Plan that emerges from this process should establish a breathtaking and environmentally sustainable green space that is also publicly accessible. A space that features natural embankments and floating islands to support wildlife, like the complex’s beloved Great Blue Herons, but also quiet gathering areas and shaded walking trails for people.

The model for our vision is the 3.0-acre Silver Lake Meadow that already exists onsite. This grassy space located on the northeastern edge of the Reservoirs Complex opened in 2011 as a “quiet park” that prohibits organized sports. When the tall fences came down around the Meadow, this landscaped space became a safe neighborhood gathering place for picnics, kite-flying, and pleasant walks through native gardens. We envision wrapping the Reservoirs Complex with the spirit of the Meadow, creating a two-mile green belt of wetlands, parks, naturalized habitat, and pathways.

We could start by bringing the Meadow to the water's edge and joining it to the adjacent “Knoll,” a gentle hillside promontory that includes another five acres with stunning views of the Griffith Observatory and downtown. This enlarged and contiguous green space might also include a natural, forested playground, as well as an environmental education center for local public schools and curious adults alike.

Two other existing resources provide templates for the kind of public access we imagine. The recently opened Ivanhoe Trail, on the Reservoirs Complex’s north end, and the South Dam Walkway, at its southern terminus, bring walkers and joggers near the water’s edge. These pathways are well-used and safely managed by DWP’s sunrise-to-sunset policy, and they should be extended into a fluid system of accessible intertwining pathways that guide people from the neighborhood, through the park, and to natural embankments.

And to make the Reservoirs Complex truly accessible, the master planners should also give thought to how visitors arrive there, not just how they move around within it. Because we believe public transit, bikes, and pedestrians should take priority over private cars, we believe the master plan should accordingly include improvements to sidewalks, crosswalks, bus stops, and bike lanes necessary to provide safe, multi-modal connectivity.

It is entirely possible to create this kind of space without abandoning our obligations to be stewards of our natural environment. In fact, public space is really only the icing on the cake; the opportunity to develop our water infrastructure is the cake itself. It is, of course, imperative that the newly designed reservoirs become a city-wide solution to the city-wide problem of water conservation. That’s why we support completing the network of piping from the reservoirs to the LA River and beyond, where clean water from Silver Lake—bio-remediated by new, oxygen-rich wetlands—can be released to downstream parks from the Glendale Narrows all the way to Long Beach. And yes, creating this healthy water ecosystem will greatly enhance our bird and wildlife population. Naturalized earthen banks, floating islands, and terraced wetlands could create shallow riparian habitat for the small fish sought by herons, for example, who currently have no food source in the reservoirs.

Los Angeles will squander the opportunity of a lifetime if it tethers this great space to a narrow vision. When the first master planning meeting convenes on Thursday, we invite participants to imagine a bold Reservoirs Complex that offers something for everyone: green spaces for families, walking trails for seniors, gathering areas for neighbors, and enhanced habitat for wildlife.

One hundred and thirteen years ago, Mulholland’s Silver Lake brought water to the people of Los Angeles, and laid a cornerstone for the city’s twentieth century flourish. Today, a renewed Silver Lake can bring the people of Los Angeles to the water, and seize upon a vision for a greener and more sustainable pedestrian city for the century to come.

Bob Soderstrom is President of Silver Lake Forward, and Adam Sieff is a Board member. They reside in Silver Lake.

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