Bridging the equine divide

July 25, 2013 

La Kretz Crossing will represent a gateway for equestrians and a symbol of the L.A. River's restoration.

The Los Angeles River, it seems, is no place for horseplay.

For some two decades, equestrian advocates have pushed for a bridge over the river to connect the stables of Atwater Village to the trails of Griffith Park. The only alternative has been to ford the shallow river, a bit of tricky navigation even for skilled riders because of the slick, algae-covered rocks beneath the surface.

“The horses look like they’re on roller skates, their legs going in all directions,” says longtime rider Lynn Brown, a member of the City of Los Angeles’ Equine Advisory Committee. “Almost no one who keeps horses on the Atwater side crosses the river. It’s so dangerous.”

But that’s about to change. Real estate developer and philanthropist Morton La Kretz has ridden to the rescue, donating nearly $5 million for a strikingly-designed bridge that will allow equestrians, pedestrians and cyclists to cross the water north of Los Feliz Boulevard. Maybe just as important, officials say, the 300-foot-long La Kretz Crossing—with a towering support structure visible from the adjacent 1-5 Freeway—will signal to broader L.A. that the river’s renaissance is for real.

Developer/philanthropist Morton La Kretz

The construction of the bridge, scheduled for completion by the end of next year, is being overseen by the non-profit Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp., created by the City of Los Angeles to bring together public and private donors to transform the river into one of the nation’s premiere urban playgrounds. In fact, as part of the publicity surrounding La Kretz Crossing, the group this week announced the launch of Greenway 2020, an ambitious initiative to finish all 51 miles of the L.A. River bikeway by decade’s end, complete with such amenities as picnic sites, eateries and bike shops.

In addition to La Kretz’ donation, the bridge is being underwritten by contributions from the city and an allocation of more than $300,000 by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky from voter-approved parks and open space funds.

Designed by the structural engineering firm of Buro Happold, the bridge will be divided with pedestrians and cyclists sharing one side and equestrians on the other. There’ll be a rubberized surface so the horses don’t slip and an eye-level fence to keep them from getting startled by passing cyclists. On the river’s western bank, the bridge will intersect with the bikeway, where equestrians and hikers can access Griffith Park’s trails through an existing tunnel under the freeway.

La Kretz was brought into the fold by renowned landscape architect Mia Lehrer, who says she got to know him while doing work for the environmental organization TreePeople; La Kretz’s name adorns the group’s educational Urban Watershed Garden in Coldwater Canyon. Lehrer says the elderly La Kretz, an avid cyclist, knew she was involved with the river’s restoration and said: “Give me something I can get excited about—and it has to be done while I’m still around.”

Soon, Lehrer says she and the river corporation were pitching the idea of a new bridge, the first that would be built in more than two decades and that would symbolically represent “a gateway” for the reimagined river. “He loved it,” says Lehrer, whose firm is the project’s landscape architect.

And La Kretz wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm.

Equestrian advocate Lynn Brown has been pushing for years for a bridge between Atwater Village and Griffith Park.

“When I heard it was going to be built I was like, ‘Yay!” says Javier Del Angel, manager of The Paddock, an upscale, 200-horse stable along the river’s eastern bank in Atwater. He says he and his horse have tumbled twice trying to negotiate the crossing. “It was very scary, and I’ve been riding my entire life.”

Some years back, Del Angel says, a woman hit her head and was in a coma for three months. On another occasion, a horse had to be airlifted out of the river after slipping on the rocks. “His legs just gave out,” Del Angel recalls, adding that a few weeks later, the animal had to be put down.

With La Kretz Crossing providing easy access to the park, Del Angel says he now sees not only safer passage but also new financial opportunities: “I’m thinking about opening a new horse rental business,” he says.

Equestrian advocate Brown also calls plans for the new bridge “a huge deal.” Like Del Angel, she too has stories of river mishaps, including one just last year while helping the L.A. River Revitalization Corp. with a video for its website. The organization said it wanted footage of horses in the river, so Brown recruited the president of the L.A. Equine Advisory Committee, who brought along an extra horse to lead through the water. Before the filming began, she says, the riderless horse stumbled and fell.

Frankly, Brown says, she was “utterly stunned but pleased” that she was even asked to participate in the video in the first place. She said that, for years, the safety and access concerns of the equestrian community seemed to go unheard.

“We thought it was a lost cause,” she says. “I’m happy to be wrong.”

Amid all the hoopla, however, one horseman offered some words of caution.

Tony Lomedico is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Mounted Unit, which is based along the river in Atwater Village. He acknowledged that the bridge will enhance safety for novice riders but expressed reservations about how some horses might react to being so close to cyclists, calling it a “new sensory experience” to which they’ll have to get accustomed.

“We look forward to the bridge coming,” Lomedico says, but “I think it’s going to create some challenges.”

Just minutes before this video image was captured, the brown horse lost its footing and fell.

Posted 7/25/13

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