Free Rowena Reser­voir

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Matthew Fleis­cher Matthew Fleis­cher is se­nior dig­i­tal edi­tor of Opin­ion, and edi­tor of its Liv­able City ver­ti­cal.

Los An­ge­les is woe­fully park poor. Less than half of L.A. County res­i­dents have easy ac­cess to a park, and three-quar­ters of the pub­lic spa­ces we do have are fall­ing apart.

If those stats sound fa­mil­iar, they should. City and county of­fi­cials used them re­peat­edly in their suc­cess­ful ef­fort to pass Mea­sure A on last fall’s bal­lot, which put county home­own­ers on the hook — in per­pe­tu­ity — for roughly $94.5 mil­lion a year in par­cel taxes to ex­pand and main­tain the county’s net­work of open spa­ces.

Now imag­ine the ab­sur­dity of an im­mac­u­lately man­i­cured space in prox­im­ity to a dense L.A. neigh­bor­hood but out of reach, locked be­hind a tow­er­ing fence for two decades — six lush acres, with a big ar­ti­fi­cial lake, water­falls and so much green­ery it has earned the nick­name “Fan­tasy Is­land” among those who can see it, but can’t use it. Its of­fi­cial name is the Rowena Reser­voir, and you might miss it if you don’t know it’s there.

From the main streets that bound the site, Hype­r­ion Av­enue and Rowena Street, where Los Feliz meets Sil­ver Lake, it mostly looks like a land­scaped berm. Owned by the Depart­ment of Wa­ter and Power, it was the site of the old­est open-air reser­voir in L.A.’s sys­tem. Built in 1901, the reser­voir was drained in 1991, af­ter state health au­thor­i­ties deemed the open-air wa­ter stor­age un­safe. A dusty decade of con­struc­tion and $14 mil­lion later, DWP in­stalled a 10-mil­lion-gal­lon un­der­ground stor­age tank, re­fur­bished the sur­face to its cur­rent Edenic state and called it good.

When The Times and other me­dia out­lets re­ported on the redo, they ex­plained that chlo­ri­na­tion and elec­tri­cal equip­ment made the site too dan­ger­ous to open it to the pub­lic. Be­sides, what would hap­pen if peo­ple jumped in the fake lake? (Funny, the L.A. River — a dan­ger­ous flood-con­trol chan­nel when it’s rain­ing and filled with treated sewage when it’s not — has al­ways been open to all com­ers.)

Still, the de­ci­sion to keep the area closed wasn’t ter­ri­bly con­tro­ver­sial at the time. That the buried reser­voir was topped with land­scap­ing at all was a po­lit­i­cal vic­tory of sorts. DWP had orig­i­nally in­tended it to be lit­tle more than an in­dus­trial fa­cil­ity ser­vices site. And Los An­ge­les was a dif­fer­ent city in 2001. The park deficit was ac­knowl­edged, but hous­ing was still rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive and a sin­gle-fam­ily home with a yard to re­lax in was within reach of a work­ing fam­ily.

Since then, how­ever, L.A.’s pop­u­la­tion has in­creased by nearly 350,000 peo­ple — roughly equiv­a­lent to the en­tire city of New Or­leans — mak­ing the Rowena Reser­voir into a mas­sive lost op­por­tu­nity.

So why not rec­tify the mis­take? DWP Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Marty Adams, who has decades of ex­pe­ri­ence over­see­ing the reser­voir, was there for the 2001 makeover. He con­firms that there are “some haz­ards” on the site, but he also doesn’t hes­i­tate to agree that it could be turned into a real park.

“It has the po­ten­tial,” he said, though he is quick to cau­tion that the lake, the water­falls and the green­ery were de­signed for aes­thet­ics, not pub­lic use. To open the area up would re­quire study and retrofitting, mostly to pro­tect and main­tain the wa­ter sup­ply be­low.

“DWP isn’t in the parks busi­ness,” Adams points out. “But we are open to op­por­tu­ni­ties to use our prop­er­ties in dif­fer­ent ways.”

In other words, the Rowena Reser­voir isn’t a lost cause. City Coun­cil District 13, which con­tains it, could take it on. So could the Los Feliz and Sil­ver Lake neigh­bor­hood coun­cils. And if study and retrofitting are what’s re­quired, why not con­sider larger pos­si­bil­i­ties as well?

Rowena Reser­voir is only a few blocks north­west of the Sil­ver Lake and Ivan­hoe reser­voirs, which in turn are just a short trip from Echo Park and Elysian Park. Reimag­in­ing Rowena Reser­voir could po­ten­tially serve as the im­pe­tus for con­nect­ing all these pub­lic spa­ces, and the re­vi­tal­ized L.A. River. An L.A. “emer­ald neck­lace” could link Grif­fith Park and the river in the north to the reser­voirs, Los An­ge­les State His­toric Park, MacArthur Park and even Ex­po­si­tion Park in the south.

Even if such an am­bi­tious plan never ma­te­ri­al­izes, in rapidly den­si­fy­ing Los An­ge­les, ev­ery acre of green space mat­ters.

Rowena Reser­voir has been locked up for long enough. Let’s find a way to set it free.

In park-poor L.A., an Edenic, off-lim­its DWP site is a huge lost op­por­tu­nity.

Rick Meyer Los An­ge­les Times

DWP per­son­nel in 2001 in­spect land­scap­ing in­stalled above un­der­ground wa­ter stor­age.

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