January 28, 2016

A Vision for Los Angeles: Urban Ag Paradise

Carren Jao

Carren Jao

Freelance Journalist

Los Angeles

Jardin del Rio Community Garden

Jardin del Rio Community Garden

Drive through the neighborhoods of Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park, and Chinatown and one can see a glimpse of gritty Los Angeles. Industrial warehouses and low-income housing dot the roadways as the Los Angeles River, freeways and train tracks slice through the neighborhood. In countless movies, this landscape has always been depicted as a wasteland of concrete and grime, where things are more gray and brown.

But a new report produced by architecture firm Perkins + Will and the LA River Revitalization Corporation explores a tantalizing what-if—what if these river adjacent communities could be green instead of gray?

Simply called Urban Agricultural Plan (UAP), the report examines the possibility of turning the 660 acres of land stitched together by the Los Angeles River into an agricultural hub where food isn’t only cultivated, but also processed and distributed. Doing so would create local jobs, add access to affordable fresh produce within this food desert, and even green the streets within these neighborhoods.

Some may scoff at the prospect of growing and processing food right where cars fly by and trains travel, but the team found that this pie-in-the-sky idea isn’t as quixotic as it sounds.

The seeds are already there, says Leigh Christy, associate principal at Perkins + Will. “We found that people in the neighborhood were already doing it in their backyard. It was happening on a localized level.” Christy relates this to Los Angeles’s tradition of small-scale farming, which can be traced as far back as the Depression. Disparate but complementary ventures are already beginning to take shape independent of the study. Plus, major transportation connections such as Metro stops and bike paths are pre-existing. Most importantly, the city codes for the entire 660-acre area actually allow urban agriculture—now a rarity in the city. Anyone who would want to grow food wouldn’t have to go through bureaucratic red tape to do so.

The plan lays out four nodes throughout the area, each with a specific purpose within the whole system. These nodes would be woven together with a network of pedestrian friendly streets outfitted with storm water features and bikeways.

Elysian Valley Community Garden

Elysian Valley Community Garden

Clustered around a Metro station stop, Node A has the potential to be a community food hub where people can socialize and shop for fresh produce. The large empty parking lots provide ample space for food truck events, farmers markets and bargain produce markets, while new buildings could host local public markets and food cooperatives. The presence of L.A. Prep, the largest multi-facility commercial kitchen in the country, is also a boon to the plan. Its culinary customer base would profit greatly from having such close access to quality ingredients for its artisanal food operations.

A little further south, in Node B, large, pre-existing industrial buildings with large rooftops would make great incubator spaces for food ventures. Once host to the likes of Al Capone, Zoot Suit rioters and Watts rioters, the behemoth and now defunct Lincoln Heights Jail could become the locale of choice for controlled-environment cultivation such as aquaponics. The current Goodwill Southern California facility’s rooftop would be a great place to start a rooftop garden.

On the other side of the river and even further south, Node C makes a perfect cultivation hub with its proximity to the Los Angeles River and the soon-to-open L.A. State Historic Park. Community gardens could blossom at William Mead Housing and Ann Street Elementary, thereby engaging the public in the cultivation of food.

Finally, Node D, would be in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. The area already draws a lot of traffic due to a number of popular eateries that have moved to the neighborhood, making it a perfect location for night markets, artisanal stores and farm-to-table restaurants. Already, the 6,000-square foot facility owned by Homeboy Industries is exploring monthly market events that will be operated by its roster of at-risk youth and former gang members.

Together, these four nodes create an ecosystem for the whole process of urban agriculture that Perkins + Will and LA River Corp. think will not only positively affect the study area, but even go beyond its borders. “This isn’t about creating a new community within Los Angeles,” says Christy, “It’s about connecting communities that already exist.” Because the study area has major Metro stations at the north and south border, it has the potential to attract an audience from all around Los Angeles.

Jardin del Rio

Jardin del Rio

So far, the plan has met with support from the community. “I’m all for it,” says Cyndi Hubach, garden manager for the Elysian Valley Community Garden, which sits on the border of the study area. “There are a lot of benefits to bringing food production into urban areas. There is the reduction in transportation costs and environmental impacts. And there are the benefits to the city in terms of green space, reduction in the heat island effect, economic opportunity, community building, use of rainwater or recycled water, a place to use compost created from our food scraps and waste, and reduced flow of organic material to landfills. Growing food in the city helps close the loop on food production: we grow it where it gets used, and what doesn’t get used gets put back in the soil to grow more food. Just the way nature intended!”

Kimberley Hodgson, founder of Cultivating Healthy Places, a consulting firm that specializes in community health, social equity and resilient food systems, says, “I’m excited about how broad and comprehensive [this plan] is and how it defines urban agriculture. [This plan] is progressive in how it addressed economic development, community development opportunities, economic drivers versus consumption pieces.” She notes that the plan’s use of specialized hubs that worked together was compelling.

Similar plans are under way in other parts of the country, says Hodgson, but nothing quite as comprehensive, touching on all points of the food system.

In Washington, D.C., the Union Market district is seeing the fruition of its neighborhood plan, which focuses on food distribution. The plan capitalized on the 45-acre district’s 200-year history hosting industrial wholesale and retail food distribution. The renewed interest began when real estate developer EDENS opened Union Market on the site of the Capital City Market where wholesalers distributing meat, produce and ethnic foods still operate. Soon artisanal food makers, artists and retailers took spaces in Union Market, spurring interest from Washingtonians. It didn’t hurt that the market sat on a strategic location at the intersection of two main thoroughfares served by a Metrorail station.

Now the industrial neighborhood hosts about 100 businesses and employs 1,500 people in food production and distribution. Eight more developments are in the works, spurred by the popularity of the market. The only thing missing in the neighborhood says The Washingtonian is green space, though there are plans to build six and a $50-million city grant to realize it.

In Southern British Columbia, Cultivating Healthy Places worked with Grow Moreau Consulting on the Delta Community-Based Farm District Plan, which came out in 2012. “It’s very different from the Los Angeles plan because it’s a 279.2-acre piece of land owned by own person, a developer.” This makes it a simpler proposition than what Los Angeles is trying to accomplish.

Elysian Valley

Elysian Valley

The Delta plan outlined ways to encourage a community-based farm district called Southlands, where farming connects communities through cultivation, production, processing, distribution and marketing of food. It calls for 80 percent of the land to be dedicated to public use and will include a community farm and preservation of natural habitat areas. The remaining 20 percent will be developed into a pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighborhood with a market square, public plaza, commercial space and gardens. It also includes diverse housing options from small cottages to live-work studios. As of May 2014, the latest iteration of the proposal was approved by the Board of Metro Vancouver. It has yet to break ground.

Hodgson says there are many challenges facing something as ambitious as the Los Angeles UAP. Foremost is implementation. “It’s not that easy to develop ideas and a vision, but once you have a plan, implementation can be challenging. You need people to take on roles and responsibilities, a coordinating entity, funding for various pieces, commitment from the players. Here, you’re dealing with public and private entities that have different goals in mind.”

Another issue is balancing development with community benefit, says Hodgson. “How do you attain economic sustainability without compromising the community benefit of the plan? Who’s going to be responsible for the community benefit pieces? How do you ensure that this doesn’t just become a really sexy, urban agriculture destination that caters to a wealthier clientele? How does this not become a hip place that’s not providing a benefit to an underserved population?”

Stella Kim of Young Nak Church, which owns a large property within the study area, right by the Los Angeles River, is supportive of the plan but has one reservation, “If it’s implemented, it’s going to change the face of the Los Angeles River area. My only concern is how much the community people are involved in the process.”

David De La Torre, garden manager for Jardin del Rio also makes the same argument. “At face value, this is a good plan but it will be only as good as its ability to engage and secure buy-in from area stakeholders.” As an active resident of Elysian Valley, De La Torre has seen many projects falter because of the lack of community support.

Though the area does allow for urban agriculture, further regulatory obstacles need to be resolved for this to be a feasible plan, points out Mott Smith, founder of L.A. Prep. “One of the keys to success for L.A. Prep was taking advantage of the New Markets Tax Credit Program [which provides private investors with tax credits for investments made in distressed neighborhoods]. Even with high demand for our facility, food companies can only pay what they can pay. Without the subsidies of the tax credit program, I don’t know that we could have done it.” Smith adds that for now the tax credit applies to their food manufacturing venture, but urban agriculture projects are not.

Hodgson also points out that having this plan adopted by the city of Los Angeles should be a goal. “With area plans or neighborhood plans led by a local government entity, there’s a legal framework for ensuring that things move forward. It gets into thinking about regulations and making sure they’re favorable to the plan.”

Finally, a vision is only as good as the partners it encourages to the table. Jennifer Samson, director of Real Estate Development for LA River Corp., is heading this effort. “We’re exploring the partnership phase. We hope that with this partnership also comes with funding, but until we get the pieces lined up, we won’t know what kind of funding we can attract.” The nonprofit is in conversations with a number of food-related businesses and organizations, but no firm commitments have been made.

“One company we had good conversations with is Local Roots, a company in the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator that just moved their facility to Vernon. That’s the kind of company we’d love to bring to the neighborhood,” says Samson. The company is growing food indoors, in a controlled environment. In doing so, it creates a local food, grown in shipping containers, as well as a real job ladder for the community.

Both Christy and Samson emphasize that a report, even as ambitious as this, is only the beginning. “We want people to take this report and run with it,” says Christy. “With transformational projects like this, it’s rarely going to be one person or one group leading the charge.”

Photo of Carren Jao by Janna Dotschkal. Photos of Jardin del Rio by David De La Torre. Photos of Elysian Valley courtesy of Elysian Valley Community Gardens.

Creative Commons License
This work by Carren Jao and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on work at www.livablefutureblog.com. Images in this post are not included in the Creative Commons license.

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