In Los Angeles and Houston, Waterway Redevelopment Must Be Balanced With Gentrification

Timothy Douglas

The Los Angeles River. Source: The High Line Network.

Once vehicles for industrialization, urban waterways are being reconsidered by many cities. Places like Pittsburgh, Louisville and Los Angeles are reimagining how residents and visitors alike experience the waterfront by providing key recreational amenities, housing and improved transportation links. Right here in the Bayou City, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BPP) has been responsible for leveraging the funds and coordinating the development of several park spaces in Houston, including Buffalo Bayou Park and Allen’s Landing.

These changes aren’t just about beautification. A growing body of literature documents the myriad public benefits that access to parks and open spaces provide, from reduced levels of stress to increased property values, improved health and community cohesion. So-called “trail-oriented development” is catching on across the country, bringing with it mixed-use development anchored around a robust transportation network and supplemented by transit and road infrastructure. But as with the related transit-oriented development, it is becoming increasingly understood that such investments carry consequences. Investments in public infrastructure like transit or parks may affect affordability, particularly in neighborhoods with large populations of low-income people who rent. Looking to cities undergoing similar large-scale projects, including waterfront transformations in Louisville, Nashville and Pittsburgh as well as the BeltLine in Atlanta, it is clear Houston and Los Angeles can expect to encounter significant challenges when it comes to housing affordability and other equity issues.

Cosmopolitan and dynamic cities, bolstered by strong economies and population growth, Los Angeles and Houston are also both in the process of undergoing significant planning efforts to revitalize the major waterways that run through them. The two are often compared to one another because of their sprawling form, auto-centricity and diverse population. Alongside investments in their waterways, the cities are also investing in transit and incentivizing more active commuting.

In Houston, the BBP has led the redevelopment of several park spaces and is in the midst of a planning study for the East Sector of the Buffalo Bayou. The partnership’s signature project is the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park. The park includes a variety of wild and landscaped trails, open spaces, picnicking areas, boat launching docks and more. It hosts festivals and events and provides Houstonians with a common backyard near downtown. The Bayou itself runs through the entire city, and the BBP is currently exploring plans to bring these amenities to park space along the East Sector of the Bayou, from U.S. 59 to the Turning Basin.

Over the course of Los Angeles’ development, the L.A. River was concretized in order to minimize seasonal flooding by rendering the river an effective storm drain for the growing metropolis. Now, Frank Gehry is the lead architect tasked with reimagining the river, and the long-term vision includes significant public space, housing, trails and beautification. The L.A. River flows 51 miles through a number of jurisdictions, complicating coordinated planning throughout the entire project. Moreover, the southeast portion of the L.A. River – known as the Gateway Cities – have poor access to the river and little in the way of amenities for them once they arrive. The portion of the L.A. River in the San Fernando Valley, known as the Upper portion, is largely residential whereas the Lower portion is significantly more industrial in character. It is this Lower portion that will be transformed by Gehry’s team of architects, planners and landscape architects.

Painting a fuller picture

Though planners and developers often talk about the benefits of redeveloping a particular area, those that are negatively affected are not always given equal platform and voice. In both Los Angeles and Houston, communities along the rivers vary dramatically in terms of socioeconomic status and economic vulnerability. Communities in the Upper L.A. River (San Fernando Valley) and the portion of the Buffalo Bayou west of Downtown Houston have significantly higher median incomes, higher rates of homeownership and lower incidences of rent burden than do households in the Lower L.A. River (Gateway Cities) and the east side of the Buffalo Bayou. The demographics are also very different: Studio City in the San Fernando Valley is roughly 78 percent non-Hispanic white and 9 percent Hispanic, whereas Cudahy in the Gateway Cities is only 2 percent non-Hispanic white and more than 96 percent Hispanic. In Houston, similarly pronounced differences exist. On the west side, River Oaks is 86 percent non-Hispanic White while Harrisburg/Manchester is only 3 percent non-Hispanic white.

Graphics below show the housing and transportation burdens of communities within a half mile of the L.A. River or Buffalo Bayou:

This should raise important policy and planning questions sensitive to local dynamics: Is the balance of affordable housing right? Are there economic opportunities for local residents in these areas? Cities undergoing these large urban greening projects often fail to protect existing households who may be vulnerable to the effects of gentrification. This problem is not restricted to redeveloping waterfronts as gentrification can be seen in many other neighborhoods, including in Houston and Los Angeles.

When significant alterations are made to the transportation network, planners and engineers conduct traffic impact analysis to understand where there are vulnerabilities, and what can be done to mitigate any impacts. A similar process could be conceived of for redevelopment projects. Gaining a better understanding of the socioeconomic status of the communities where redevelopment projects are planned helps to identify what policy solutions may be needed to address any negative impacts.

Key among potential negative impacts are those to housing affordability. Redevelopment impacts housing affordability, which in turn can affect a household’s ability to remain in their community. Governments at all levels can and should be crafting progressive housing policies so that existing residents may also benefit from new park space and waterfront access. Los Angeles County did so last November when voters passed two ballot measures that would provide for a significant amount of affordable housing. Atlanta, likewise, has partnered with the Westside Future Fund to provide an Anti-Displacement Tax Fund to help homeowners facing sharp property tax bill rises as a result of the BeltLine development. Though execution of Atlanta’s plan has stumbled, moves like these are important first steps. These kinds of solutions, and more, should be explored and considered alongside redevelopment proposals. Sound analysis and cogent policy decisions are critical, but so is follow-through on the part of the governments and agencies that are advancing redevelopment. Vulnerable communities must be planned for and protected so that we may ensure that public parks truly serve the public.

Timothy Douglas recently completed his Master of Urban and Regional Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. This blog post is based upon his Master’s capstone project entitled “Amenitizing Urban Waterways: Planning public space improvements with vulnerable communities in mind,” under the supervision of Dr. Kyle Shelton of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, and Dr. Michael Lens of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The opinions contained herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of his supervisors, of Rice University or of UCLA.

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