Speak Easy Q&A: Mia Lehrer

The landscape planner is changing the way we see—and interact with—the city

Résumés don’t usually make for good reading, but the list of disparate projects Mia Lehrer has taken on is impressive: The landscape planner (she wouldn’t mind if you called her an urbanist) conceived the captivating garden at the Natural History Museum, the upgrade of Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood, the San Pedro Waterfront master plan, and the landscaping around Santa Monica’s Annenberg Community Beach House. In northeast L.A. she has created two vital public spaces: Vista Hermosa Natural Park near downtown and the recreation area around the Silver Lake Reservoir. She designed the new plazas at Dodger Stadium and is crafting the blueprint for 40 acres of public amenities in the redevelopment of Hollywood Park, too.

Lehrer, who’s 61, grew up in San Salvador, the daughter of German immigrants. Married to architect Michael Lehrer (his firm recently completed the brilliant little park downtown near 4th and Spring streets), she came to the United States before attending Tufts near Boston. It was meeting Friends of the Los Angeles River founder Lewis Mac-Adams more than two decades ago and participating in the organization’s annual cleanup that helped nudge her into the public realm. Lehrer has been an unremitting force in shaping the master plan that calls for beautifying 32 miles of concrete flood channel into a string of appealing open spaces. In May the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the waterway, backed the city’s $1 billion Alternative 20 proposal that calls for multiple projects along an 11-mile stretch from downtown to Verdugo Wash in Glendale. Three months later she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. We spoke with Lehrer in the historic Wiltern Theater building, where her team is working on plans that have the potential to transform the city.

Suddenly the L.A. River is a source of inspiration, not just some well-engineered flood channel. What do you think has accounted for this shift?
People started realizing that we needed more parks because there are many more people in Los Angeles. There was no planning for schools and there was no planning for parks, while there was a lot of great planning for freeways.

The renderings for the master plan show plenty of water in the river. But people often say that it’s not a river because there’s no water much of the year.
You know, there’s already an area with eight feet of water. Of course there’s water because they let it out of Tillman—

The sewage treatment plant near the Sepulveda Dam…
Tillman’s water is really clean. It’s important to note that, number one, the river got declared navigable by the Army Corps of Engineers, and number two, kayaks are now in the river during the summer. The corps stopped bulldozing the vegetation in parts of the river—that was the regime originally, to bulldoze it—because we advocated for it.

The soft-bottom portions of the river with all the trees do look more like a river. Are you looking at this as a linear park?
All along the river there should be “moments,” so it doesn’t feel like one straight run. We could have stepped gardens. Off-channels, as we call them, could have some water, where you could have an inflatable dam to allow for water to pool for an extended period. We could have, for example, storm water or even nuisance water, which is what we call the water used for cleaning and such, go through these terraces in the river that clean it, so there’s a little water always seeping through them that is associated with life in the city.

Isn’t Piggyback Yard—the 125-acre shipping container transfer area near Union Station—supposed to be a centerpiece of sorts?
Piggyback Yard would be one of the largest elements. We’d take this rail yard that is somewhat underutilized and turn it partially into a series of wetlands and areas that can host active play but also can be flooded.

What’s the first aspect of the overall plan that you think we’ll see?
The first project, which hopefully will break ground this fall, is a nice bridge that’s going to connect Griffith Park to Atwater. There hasn’t been a pedestrian bicycle bridge built across the river in a long time. (The one on Los Feliz is just from one end of the street to the other.) The second thing will probably be the waterwheel in L.A. State Historic Park, which is being designed and built by Lauren Bon’s group, Metabolic Studio.

Which will pay tribute to a waterwheel that pulled water from the river more than a century ago. It’s supposed to be pretty dramatic, isn’t it?
It’ll be this wonderful celebration of water and the history of the movement of water into the agricultural valley that was L.A.

The city has been good about approving river-related projects like that. But do you normally find it pretty difficult dealing with L.A. city government since council people tend to focus on their own districts at the expense of others?
There’s no question that the city is balkanized. Planning happens by the council districts. It is frustrating. The river—seven or five council districts actually touch the river—seems to unify people. There are other efforts in the city that people do get behind as a larger entity. Some of the efforts of Eric Garcetti’s administration, in terms of economic development and also streets and other projects, have allowed people to think about the big picture.

What is an urban project or city park that inspires you?
Parque Madrid Río. It’s an exquisite urban revitalization project, just like we hope the L.A. River will be. One side of the river is much more planted and soft, with lots of amenities like fountains and vista points and sinuous walkways, and the other side is more linear and denser, with food concessions. It’s well connected to the city. I also happen to love Bryant Park in Manhattan. It’s so flexible. You’re not programmed. Nobody’s telling you, “Go sit there.” You can move the chairs around. It is an incredibly contemporary and well-designed space.

How about the High Line in Lower Manhattan?
I like the High Line, but it gets too much attention. It may be beautiful, but it’s overwrought. There’s so much! Do you need that much? I’d rather have many more Bryant Parks that are straightforward and simple. The construction costs for the High Line would be hard to replicate, given how much work needs to happen in the public realm.

If you could wave a wand and change one thing about the physical part of L.A., what would it be?
Number one, I would deal with the urban forest and have a more consistent treescape like many other mature cities have. And it would include palm trees. And secondarily I would deal with the freeway-scape.

When you look over the city, what do you see?
I am always thinking of how awesome and big everything is. On one side you look at mountains and you say, “Wow, it’s amazing.” The San Fernando Valley is so big. And there’s something awesome about the scale, but I don’t think the city is very well connected. Certainly the acquisition of Santa Monica Mountains land in the last 25 years by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to encircle big parts of the city is of incredible note; if we hadn’t purchased it, we would be seeing more and more single-family residences in those hills.

Hermosa Vista, the new space you designed on the outskirts of downtown L.A., is immersive and fragrant and lush. You hardly know you’re near downtown until you go a little ways in and see the skyline. L.A. parks often lack such power. Why is that?
Vista Hermosa is maintained by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. And it was L.A. Unified land that was leased to the conservancy for a dollar a year for 99 years, I believe. They manage everything about it.

So aside from your design, it’s nice because the city didn’t oversee its creation?
I don’t know that we should go there. Many of the city’s agencies are too big, and the system is overtaxed. The agencies are understaffed and underbudgeted. It’s a very complex governance issue. It’s going to change, but you have to give it time, and political leadership as well as community support are critical. For an example, look at Echo Park Lake. That is a city project, and it’s being maintained nicely.

Which may surprise people who haven’t seen it. It’s easy to suffer from diminished expectations when living in Los Angeles. Metro has some pretty subway stations, but public spaces here don’t often wow.
For the longest time, when friends of mine from, let’s say, Barcelona or New York or Boston would ask me, “If I come to L.A., what should I see?”—you know, there are a handful of projects, but it’s a conundrum. I think architects would say the same thing: Why is it that Los Angeles doesn’t have the design appetite that other cities have? London, Paris, and even Miami seem to be exploding. Metro has tried with its stations; a lot of them are interesting. But there isn’t an appetite, an ethos. In New York, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, he had a group of people like Amanda Burden, who was the head of the planning commission but also was kind of a design guru. We have to go through an approval process in Cultural Affairs one project at a time, but it is not in their purview to look at the bigger picture.

You’ve talked elsewhere about how you wish L.A. would appoint a design czar.
Yes, somebody who feels strongly about the future of the city and who has the power like folks in Bloomberg’s administration did to filter and keep people on their toes to deliver what they promised. And to raise the bar when it comes to designing parks. We have a lot of nice libraries. We also have some excellently designed schools and police stations.

The central police station downtown is attractive. But is having a design czar pie in the sky, given the city’s other challenges?
There are already several czars, including the tech czar, and there are several deputies. Why isn’t design as important? The filters aren’t there, and they should be. Go to Washington and Philadelphia and New York, and, God, they have granite curbs and they have grates around the trees so the trees survive. We’re on a cycle of trimming trees every 50 years. We just need to care more about the public realm and walkability and pedestrian zones. And I think it’s starting to happen. I have a lot of faith in the new administration focusing more on those issues. I would convince my fellow Angelenos that it is worth voting for additional funding to build and maintain projects in the public realm.

You work in areas with a preponderance of men. How does being a woman or a Latina factor into how you approach a project?
Women think a little differently. There’s a generosity of spirit, of triangulating and connecting, making sure that the right agencies are in the dialogue so that you can perhaps untangle a series of problems and start to think bigger.

And as far as being from San Salvador?
It’s a sense of empathy to multiculturalism and an empathy for immigration. To be honest, I ended up with this adopted homeland, and I felt un-American in a sense. I was always drawn to the one who had traveled or had been in the military and been abroad—who had more experiences than a safe, middle-class, apple-pie upbringing. In my forties I realized I have to start voting. It took me a long time to arrive at this sense that I could be a Latina and an American, and that’s what I love about L.A. I think there are so many of us like that. There’s just such a level of multiculturalism. It’s not one city; it’s many, many villages, and you find your niche.