As rivers get cleanups, can city residents still afford to live nearby?

The Los Angeles River and Washington's Anacostia River could become tests of how well communities can balance new development with opportunities for longstanding residents.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Members of the D.C. Department of Public Works react as a bald eagle flies overhead during a 2016 tour of the Anacostia River arranged by the Anacostia Watershed Society. Clockwise from l.: Playdese Weaver; Clara Elias, from the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment; Ariel Trehan, from the Anacostia Watershed Society; Irene Jordan; Nathan Ferebee; and Richard Lee.

When Daniel Paredes was growing up in the Elysian Valley neighborhood, the nearby Los Angeles River felt like a dangerous place to visit. From the nearby factories to the gang elements that would often be there, the risks sometimes deterred him and his friends from going down to the water to collect tadpoles and crayfish.

The neighborhood – more commonly known as “Frogtown,” after the Western toads that would flood the streets on their way to the river to breed and lay eggs – has changed a lot since Mr. Paredes was a boy. Plans to restore and develop the LA River have helped send the surrounding real estate market into overdrive, and what was once a neighborhood full of working-class Latinos like his parents is now one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Last summer, after living there for 40 years, Paredes’s parents got priced out of the Frogtown and moved to the Silver Lake neighborhood nearby, and they are not alone.

“I like the idea of the river becoming a better place for the residents there, but it’s coming with this whole change,” Paredes says. “You’re at a point where the people who might’ve benefitted from the river project, like, 15 years ago, might not be around to benefit from it by the time it’s done.”

After a century of neglect and pollution, cities around the world have been restoring their rivers and riverfront areas. Cities from San Antonio and Pittsburgh to Seoul and Bilbao have already restored their rivers. Chicago and Cleveland are exploring doing the same.

But cleanups under way here in L.A., and across the country in Washington, D.C., show how the success of one form of advocacy is giving rise to a whole other kind of advocate: those trying to ensure that river-linked development plans benefit working-class residents, not just upscale newcomers.

In some cases, new alliances are being forged between environmental groups, housing, and economic development advocates. The goal is a balanced plan that’s not about just fighting for cleaner rivers – or fighting against development that comes with cleaner rivers.

“What we’ve tried to do is put together several pieces that have been approached by others elsewhere, but we’ve tried to roll them into a package here that’s not common,” says Doug Siglin, executive director of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust, a Washington group that’s involved in one of these coalitions. “I can’t think of any other close examples of what it is precisely that we’re doing,” he adds. “There’s a vacuum here.”

'Forgotten river' to urban oasis

Since the time of early civilizations from the Tigris and Euphrates to China’s Yangtze, rivers have nurtured human societies. With increasing population growth and industrialization, however, came growing problems with pollution – setting the stage for a cleanup movement that, in the United States, dates largely to congressional passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The Anacostia River, which flows from Maryland to join the Potomac in Washington, has been polluted since the 19th century, when soil erosion from nearby agricultural activity increased sedimentation and clogged the river with mud flats. Twentieth-century industrialization brought more chemical pollution and sewage discharge into the river, along with a loss of wetland habitat.

By 2000, the Anacostia had been nicknamed “the forgotten river,” and while organized restoration work on the river has been ongoing since the 1990s – the D.C. government is also under a federal consent decree to nearly eliminate sewage discharge into the rivers – neighborhoods east of the river have continued to be neglected.

That is beginning to change.

More than 100,000 people have moved into the city since 2000, transforming it from a largely impoverished and crime-ridden city to America’s “coolest” municipality (according to Forbes). D.C.’s poorest residents are now concentrated in Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia, some of them having moved from other wards that became too expensive.

Controversy over gentrification

Compared to polluted rivers, ones you can walk or bike alongside without having to hold your breath represent environmental progress that benefits the public at large.

But the effects on real estate and rents can be controversial. 

Rhonda Hamilton has spent her entire life in affordable housing near the Anacostia, and has watched as development has reshaped the city west of the river over the past 20 years while the water grows steadily cleaner.

It’s more of a coincidence, she says, but it’s one that’s making both sides of the Anacostia increasingly attractive. There’s “a domino effect,” she says.

“You have developers building around water that’s becoming cleaner,” she adds, “so they’re jumping in for the benefits.”

Sitting in one of the several new cafes in Ward 7’s Deanwood neighborhood, Latisha Atkins sees both the promise and the risk for her neighborhood.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Latisha Atkins, founder of the community outreach nonprofit Bridging Ward 7, sits at the Eclectic Cafe in the Deanwood neighborhood of Ward 7 in Washington, D.C., a few minutes from the Anacostia River. She's working with a coalition seeking to safeguard affordable housing as development comes to the river.

“We’re pretty much one of the last frontiers where you can grow. Housing is still somewhat affordable,” says Ms. Atkins, president and chief executive officer of Bridges Inc., a Ward 7 group specializing in community development. “Any time you beautify an area, make it a place that’s more welcoming, you make it a place that people are attracted to. That’s kind of a curse and a blessing.”

Many residents east of the Anacostia, including Atkins, look at how other D.C. neighborhoods have changed in recent years as validation of their concerns about a beautified and developed riverfront.

The Chinese population in Chinatown shrank from 3,000 in the late 1990s to about 300, and the black population of “Chocolate City” has dropped from 70 percent in 1980 to less than 50 percent today, as the city’s median income has been steadily increasing since 2005.

Seeking a different outcome

“I think the District understands that in the past they have not done a great job at equitable development,” says Ms. Atkins.

To prevent a repeat east of the Anacostia, a variety of groups in the District have been working together to ensure that east-of-the-river communities are involved in discussions of how development occurs, and that with development come local jobs, business opportunities, and the retention or expansion of affordable housing.

The Anacostia Waterfront Trust is one of those, and the organization has brought together a diverse coalition of local and national environmental and social issues groups – from the Anacostia Business Improvement District and East River Family Strengthening Collaborative to the Audubon Society and Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There are going to be some challenges, but I also think we have a huge opportunity to shape the ward in a way that we want the ward to be shaped,” says Atkins, who is also a consultant for the Trust. “As the saying goes, if you’re not at the table then chances are you’re on the menu.”

Her group isn’t the only one focused on equitable development.

The 11th Street Bridge, which connects Ward 8 on the river’s east side with Capitol Hill on the west, is being converted into a park. And Scott Kratz, the project’s director, is working on a plan he hopes will help existing residents survive – and benefit from – the tsunami of dollars expected to come flooding over the Anacostia. (While the park won’t open for at least two years, it’s already a selling point in real estate ads, the Washington Post reported.)

The plan includes putting residents on park construction jobs, hiring them for permanent jobs once the park opens, supporting small businesses nearby, and expanding affordable housing. The effort is supported by a $50 million investment from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in the city.

“So often with these projects it is decried after the displacement already happens, but when the genie’s out of the bottle the genie’s out of the bottle,” says Mr. Kratz. “Making sure that we’re thinking really early, before that happens…is critical.”

In L.A., a billion dollar baby

In Los Angeles, Daniel Paredes believes development was inevitable for long-neglected neighborhoods along the L.A. River, including the Elysian Valley, the neighborhood he grew up in. Plans to restore the roughly 50-mile river may have accelerated the process. 

Since the US Army Corps of Engineers recommended the current $1 billion plan to restore the river, named Alternative 20, in 2014, he has seen a sharp uptick in property values and local resident incomes.

Noaki Schwartz/AP/File
Kayakers paddle down the Los Angeles River in April 2001.

The median price of a home in the Elysian Valley saw a one-year rise of 21 percent, compared with a county average of a 16 percent increase, according to a report last year from the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. In other riverside neighborhoods like Atwater, Boyle Heights, and Silver Lake-Echo Park, home values rose by 83, 87, and 30 percent respectively in the year since the third quarter of 2015. Meanwhile, the 1 million residents in the L.A. River corridor have a lower median income and a slightly higher poverty rate than the rest of the county, according to the USC report.

Most of the year, the river is little more than a wide concrete trench with a trickle of water running through it, thanks to Army Corps flood-control efforts designed to wash rains quickly out to sea. It’s perhaps less known as a river than as the venue for Hollywood car chases (“Grease,” “The Italian Job”) and apocalyptic robot clashes (“Transformers,” “Terminator 2”).  

Benefiting people, and aquifers

Restoration plans have been percolating since the 1980s, and the city came under its own consent decree to reduce pollution discharge in 1999 – but not until Alternative 20 has a specific plan for the river been put into motion.

The potential benefits are considerable. The Army Corps project envisions the new river as a multifunctional green space for recreation and relaxation, as well as preventing flash floods and absorbing water to recharge the water-poor city’s underground aquifers.

Equitable development advocates in the city want many of the things the 11th Street Bridge Park project is working on – namely local hiring and commitments to retaining affordable housing. What’s unclear is how much beyond lip service those efforts will get.

Some worry the city is running out of time.

“It is possible to make a neighborhood nicer and not cause displacement, but it requires a lot of forward thinking and preplanning to do that, which I’m not seeing happening,” says Sissy Trinh, founder and executive director of the Chinatown-based Southeast Asian Community Alliance. “We should have been having these conversations 10 years ago.”

'A pivotal time'

Forward thinking is exactly what people like Kratz and Mr. Siglin are trying to do with the Anacostia. How successful they’ll be remains to be seen. Along the Anacostia, residents are watching with wary optimism.

In the cafe in the Deanwood neighborhood, Latisha Atkins thinks of the cycles of displacement the city has been through, including African-Americans being pushed out of Georgetown in the early 20th century. And she’s hoping for a different outcome.

“We’re at a pivotal time now where we could kind of be an example for what’s going on – not only here, but in other jurisdictions,” she says. “So I’m excited. This is an exciting time.”

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