Many of us celebrated the opening of the Elysian Valley segment of the LA River Bike Path last year with a good amount of hoopla and ceremony. This newest section of the bike path runs through Elysian Valley, going 2.58 miles from Fletcher Drive to Barclay Street – near where the 5 Freeway connects with the 110. In engineer-speak, this section of the bike path was labeled “1-C”. The next section on the LA River, which will connect all the way to Downtown with bike path and bike lanes (Phase 3) , is currently in early design stages.
LADOT Bike Blog was certainly guilty of being overly optimistic about the opening date of Phase 1C. Back in the salad days of LADOT Bike Blog, we predicted 1C opening in late April of 2010. Oops. That predicted opening itself was a delay of the original opening date set for January 2010.
This wasn’t, however, the first delay for Phase 1C. The Elysian Valley section of the LA River Bike Path seems to have been born under an unlucky star. Come with us as we go through the history of Phase 1C.
Breaking the River into Pieces
The original concept for the LA River Bike Path originated back in 1993. LADOT that year won a Metro “Call For Projects” grant for the LA River Bike Path, which was to run from Riverside Drive & Zoo Drive in the north down to Barclay Street in the south. It became pretty clear after some of the preliminary work, however, that the project was simply too big and complex to build all at once. Thus the project was split up into different pieces – 1A, 1B, 1D & 1C. (Yes, they were created out of order.)
1A was the first section of the bike path to be completed – in 1997. 1A runs 3.15 miles from Riverside Drive in Griffith Park down to Los Feliz Boulevard. Section 1D was completed in 2000, running 1.38 miles from Los Feliz Boulevard to Fletcher Drive. Section 1B, the Alex Baum Bicycle Bridge spanning Los Feliz Boulevard and connecting sections 1A and 1D, was completed in 2002. And then, of course, there’s section 1C.
A 10 Year Slog
Design for Phase 1C of the LA River Bike Path began back in 1999, which was also the year LADOT secured another Metro Call For Projects grant securing right-of-way and construction funding for Phase 1C. Although design was completed by 2002 (about when the Alex Baum Bicycle Bridge was completed) this section of the bike path, running through the community of Elysian Valley, presented a much more complicated process than earlier stages.
Problems with River-Adjacent Properties
A right-of-way impact assessment study for Phase 1C in Elysian Valley determined the City must secure easements from publicly and privately held parcels which extended into the LA River. Back when the LA River was channelized in the 1930s, the LA County Flood Control District established a flood-control easement on the properties where the river channel was to go – without buying any of the property. This flood-control easement meant land beneath the channel walls still belonged to the property owners along the river, but that they couldn’t use that land for purposes other than flood control.
Over 70 public and private property owners would need to agree to a new easement that would allow public access. Since a bike path isn’t a flood control use, the existing easement did not not apply. The City agreed to pay property owners fair market value for the new easement, and secured agreements with the other land-holding public agencies involved, to secure the bike path right-of-way.
To acquire the easements necessary for the bike path, the City began the time-consuming process of offering compensation to all the individual private property owners along the river. While most property owners agreed to take the compensation package offered by the City, one property owner refused. This last property owner, in their negotiations with the City, demanded a compensation sum twenty times greater than the amount the City was offering.
As negotiations in Elysian Valley bogged down, the idea of using a “prescriptive easement” to secure the rights for the bike path started gaining traction in City Hall. A prescriptive easement is a pretty complicated legal procedure but it essentially argues that, because something is already being used for a certain purpose, you don’t have to secure the rights to continue that purpose. The logic followed that because people were already riding their bikes along the access road on the LA River in Elysian Valley, the City didn’t need to compensate owners for the easement to build the bike path.
Work with the City Attorney
The guidelines for a prescriptive easement are demanding; the City spent the better part of two years working with the City Attorney’s Office compiling evidence to prove a prescriptive easement applied. Yet after two years of work, the City Attorney determined that the LA River Bike Path simply couldn’t fit within those guidelines.
Back to the Drawing Board
In 2008, after two years of battling for a prescriptive easement, the City had to go back to the negotiations table. When it became clear that a deal could not be reached with the final property owner (who still demanded twenty times the City’s offer), the City took the owner to court to secure the needed easement for the bike path built.
Final Speed Bump?
The court case wrapped up in late 2008 with City paying a marginally higher price than what was originally offered – but far (far) less than the amount sought by the property owner. The next stage for Phase 1C involved certifying the right-of-way and putting the construction of the bike path project out to bid. A bidder was found and ground was broken on the project in June of 2009.
While Phase 1C had a projected construction schedule of 180 work days, the bike path ended up taking double the amount of time before opening. Needless to say, there were myriad setbacks along the way.
Lighting Problems, Part 1
One of the largest delays came in the form of lighting. The Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Street Lighting (BSL) was at the time exploring solar and LED lighting options for many different City projects, including along the LA River Bike Path on phases 1A and 1D. Only after construction on Phase 1C began did the BSL determine LED lighting was an accepted use. Part of this move to install new lighting came from the City’s commitment to sustainable infrastructure at City facilities, but also as an attempt to deter thieves. The lighting fixtures in place on phases 1A and 1D were constantly plagued over the years by vandals who stripped out all the copper wiring on the bike path to sell for quick cash.
Lighting Problems, Part 2
Replacing the existing lighting with solar-powered lights seemed to offer a perfect solution. They would be eco-friendly and require minimal wiring. A suitability study of Phase 1C’s path, however, found that over 60 trees would need to be either removed or significantly cut back in order to create the sunlit space necessary for solar-powered fixtures to fully charge their batteries.
The City instead decided to save the trees and install LED lighting along the path in Elysian Valley. Since a contract had already been awarded to build solar lighting before LED lighting was approved by the BSL, the City had to issue a change-order to the contractor. This meant the original contractor had to find new vendors and subcontractors to install a new lighting system, leading to multiple delays and postponements of the bike path’s opening. Despite the fact that the path had asphalt and fences along almost its entire length, the City couldn’t officially open the path until construction was truly finished or risk opening the contractor and the City to legal liability on an unfinished facility. This led to a waiting game in the Fall of 2010: the bike path was empty of construction workers, paved, fenced, and yet still closed.
Near the completion of Phase 1C, a group of engaged residents in Elysian Valley expressed concerns about the configuration of the bike path. For years, they used the technically-closed-to-the-public bike path as a walking trail and neighborhood park. Residents of Elysian Valley worried that once the bike path was officially open, spandexed “cyclists” would ride through their neighborhood at high speeds and endanger residents walking on the path. As an attempt to compromise, LADOT added signage to “Watch for Pedestrians” and painted Pedestrian stencils on the edges of the bike path. This segregation of uses didn’t appeal to the neighbors, who threatened to oppose the opening of the bike path; the pedestrian stencils were painted over at the request of the community. Instead of boycotting the opening of the bike path, a group of neighbors marched the length of the path with a banner encouraging pedestrian safety.
What’s Next for the LA River?
The next step for the LADOT Bike Program on the LA River is called Phase 3. This section, currently in design, will go all the way to Downtown. Though some of the route is yet to be determined, this section of the bike path will transition to bike lanes after crossing the LA River – on the newly reconstructed Riverside Drive Bridge. Once on the north bank of the river, bike lanes will run close to the LA River as a couplet on Avenues 18 and 19 as well as on Barranca Street and North Spring Street. After the bike lanes cross over the LA River at the Spring Street Bridge, the plan is to build a combination of bike lanes and paths all the way to Downtown.
As more developments come to the LA River Bike Path, LADOT Bike Blog will do our best to keep you up to date.