Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

The three design schemes look totally distinct on paper and come with different names — “Island,” “Soft Edge,” “The Yards” — but they all have the same goal: restore wildlife habitat, plant people-friendly landscapes and develop flood-control strategies for a place that has been the subject of so much neglect, speculation, dreaming and debate: the L.A. River.

Some of the loudest conversations about the transformation of the 51-mile L.A. River center on Taylor Yard, what had been a greasy, soot-filled tangle of rail lines and boxcars. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, freight trains rumbled to and from the yard named after the Taylor Mill that once stood on the site. When Southern Pacific Railroad vacated the land in the mid-1980s, the company left behind a contaminated plot along the concrete-lined waterway.

Taylor Yard, often referred to as the G2 parcel, has emerged as the heart of the ambitious L.A. River Revitalization Plan, an initiative for an 11-mile stretch of river and part of a multipronged effort to renew habitat and create green space for Los Angeles residents in adjacent neighborhoods along San Fernando Road — Cypress Park and Glassell Park — as well as Elysian Valley across the river.

In 2017 the city of Los Angeles paid $60 million for the 42-acre parcel, which is adjacent to Rio de Los Angeles State Park and the Bowtie, a yet-to-be developed 18-acre parcel owned by California State Parks. The complete remediation and redevelopment of Taylor Yard will take nearly a decade, with sections of the riverbank opening to the public in phases starting in three to five years.

The hot Spanish architecture office Selgascano will create a viewing platform at Taylor Yard so the public has some access to the changes to the river habitat prior to the 2028 opening.

More important, three preliminary proposals for the overall park design were recently made public.

WSP, a global landscape architecture and engineering firm, and local Studio MLA, the landscape architecture firm founded by Mia Lehrer, presented three plans at a community workshop last month. The designs for a nearly mile-long park at Taylor synthesized feedback from a range of stakeholders, turning comments from meetings and surveys about access and amenities into kayak launches and education facilities, passive and active recreation areas, bridges and walking trails.

Because the contaminated industrial site requires soil remediation, the design team looked to create new topographies: soft hills dotted with oaks and sycamores and an overlook inspired by surrounding ridgelines.

“With Taylor Yard, our hope is to create experiences at different scales that are very close to nature and also celebratory of the community,” Lehrer said. “You start seeing how this place could weave together cultures and age groups through landscape and activities.”

In all three design schemes, the priority is bringing people closer to the river’s edge.

“Island” takes inspiration from the naturally occurring sediment islands that form in the soft-bottom sections of the river. A terraced riverbank would offer access to the water and views of the island, what Lehrer calls an “eco-destination” accessible to scientists and students.

The “Soft Edge” proposal draws from the language of ecology. Instead of a concrete channel, imagine a “bio-plateau” made up of native plants and treatment ponds that also functions as a flood plain.

Perhaps with a nod to Manhattan’s High Line, “The Yards” scheme uses railroad history to organize the large park. A circular plaza, the Roundhouse, would sit at the approximate location where a railway turntable used to spin locomotives.

“The design speaks to the original industrial nature of the place: the steel and gravel,” Lehrer said. “It’s of L.A., in L.A., along the river.”

Still in design development, Selgascano’s Vista Del Rio viewing platform overlooking the multiyear construction is to meant to provide a cool, splashy amenity while starting to connect the public to the site. Vista Del Rio is set to open in 2020. Last month the Bureau of Engineering hosted focus groups in English and Spanish with Selgascano, and an open design workshop is being planned for September.

In a city rich with architecture firms, some may question why the city turned to a Spanish practice.

“What we needed for this early-stage project, which will cover just a fraction of the G2 site, is a pragmatic, optimistic and small-D democratic design language,” said Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer for the city (and former architecture critic for The Times). “All of which is very much part of the L.A. design tradition, and all of which Selgascano has delivered in earlier work.”

Playful forms in eye-popping hues characterize Selgascano’s portfolio, and the firm has a track record of creating temporary structures and follies that delight with visual wonder and unusual materials. Its hallucinogenic Second Home Serpentine Pavilion, first exhibited in London in 2015, will be on view at the La Brea Tar Pits until November.

The Taylor Yard park is the hub of a massive river coordination effort between the city, the county, which is developing a master plan for all 51 miles of the river, and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The project also involves the state, which owns adjacent land, the Army Corps of Engineers and a key funder: the federal government.

All three Taylor Yard plans suggest locations for new structures: cafes, research buildings and cultural facilities. While likely necessary for long-term economic and social health of the project, new development along this portion of the river has long been the subject of debate, with skepticism dating to the 1990s, when a plan for a river park was first proposed at a conference sponsored by Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Sierra Club, among others.

“It would be tough to overstate either the potential or the complexity of the site,” Hawthorne said. “This is a habitat restoration project, an open-space equity project, a post-industrial remediation project and a hydrology project in an era of climate change.”

With a decade to go before opening, at this stage it’s unknown who will design or manage nearly 4.5 acres of new buildings. But it is reasonable to ask: Who will benefit? Renewed attention to the waterway is driving speculative real estate development and concerns about gentrification in other river-adjacent neighborhoods.

According to Mary Nemick, director of communications for the Bureau of Engineering, the city has embarked on one of its most extensive public outreach efforts. There’s deep awareness that everyone — whether neighbor or river activist or student at nearby Aragon Avenue Elementary School — has an opinion.

The project website, tayloryardg2.com, lists upcoming meetings and opportunities for public feedback.