Silver Lake residents debate reservoir's — and neighborhood's — future

On a recent afternoon in Silver Lake, joggers circled the reservoir, dogs ran in the dog park and families picnicked on a meadow on the eastern side of the lake. Sun glinted off the million-dollar homes that sit high in the Silver Lake hills looking down on the basin. It would have been picturesque if it weren’t for one glaring catch: Silver Lake Reservoir, the neighborhood’s namesake and signature icon, sits empty.

The reservoir was drained a year ago as part of a project by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to build a 4,600-foot bypass pipeline connecting a new underground reservoir north of Griffith Park to the city’s water distribution system. The new reservoir had to be built after federal regulations went into effect mandating that all drinking-water supplies be stored underground to avoid contamination.

Since it was drained, the 96-acre “Silver Lake” has become an eyesore. Huge earth-moving trucks dot the basin like toy cars. Dirt covers the bottom and weeds have begun to sprout.

Although officials have promised to refill the lake, there is a bigger battle brewing over the future of the landmark. Once a community jewel that drew mostly locals, Silver Lake has become a destination with an international following, its popularity rising along with the hipness of the surrounding community.

And that has sparked debate about what Silver Lake should become. Some people want only to refill the reservoir or make minor improvements, while others see an irresistible opportunity to create an expansive recreational park for the city of Los Angeles.

Catherine Geanuracos, a co-founder of the nonprofit Silver Lake Forward, said her group is committed equally to the values of access, beauty and conservation. “Some people feel that those are mutually exclusive, but they’re not,” she said.

Geanuracos said the group’s primary goal is to get the city to fund a study into the lake’s future. Silver Lake Forward members have previously proposed adding bathrooms, more seating, docks and a “beach” where people could swim.

Grand ideas like those have other residents worried.

“This cannot be a Santa Monica Pier,” said Jill Cordes, leader of the “Refill Silver Lake Now” campaign. The campaign represents many homeowners and young families, Cordes said, who welcome visitors to the reservoir but “don’t want to make it the biggest, busiest hot spot in Los Angeles.”

The Silver Lake Reservoir, engineered by William Mulholland and named after water commissioner Herman Silver, was built in 1907 to hold an emergency supply of drinking water. It was later integrated into the city’s regular drinking water system to accommodate a growing population.

When it was first filled, the reservoir looked like a mountain lake — an unfenced body of water surrounded by earth. Two thousand trees were planted around the lake shortly after was built. Mulholland even had bass added for fishing, said Glen Creason, a librarian at the L.A. Public Library. During World War II, a fence was added around the lake; its banks were raised and paved in 1951.

The overall 127-acre complex encompasses the Silver Lake Reservoir, the much smaller  Ivanhoe Reservoir, surrounding buildings and facilities, a recreation center and open land. The reservoirs are a historic-cultural monument, home to a variety of wildlife — including the legally protected great blue heron — and a popular destination for joggers.

In the year 2000, after undergoing an extensive community consultation process, the DWP approved a “master plan” for the reservoir complex. The plan included a pedestrian path around the lake and a common-use “meadow,” both of which were completed in the last decade.

The master plan did not consider expanding the reservoir for recreational purposes because it was expected to remain functioning, DWP officials said.

“Now it’s a very different story,” said Marty Adams, chief operating officer for the agency. “The entire property is kind of fair game.”

Such a blank slate comes with a host of opinions.

At a community meeting in November hosted by the DWP and L.A. City Council members David Ryu and Mitch O’Farrell, who represent the neighborhood, residents heckled one another as they delivered comments on the reservoir’s future. A man wearing a Silver Lake Forward T-shirt accused residents who were opposed to park development of selfishness and a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude. A longtime homeowner made a plea to city officials to put the interests of Silver Lake residents first. And a question about whether to paint the concrete sides of the reservoir ended in a stalemate.

David Keitel is president of the Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy, a 28-year-old nonprofit focused on preserving and enhancing the reservoirs. The group recently surveyed 3,400 residents about the reservoir.

“The community values the water for all kinds of reasons,” Keitel said, including the view, nature and wildlife and public space.

Keitel said residents have held fairly consistent attitudes about development of the reservoir over time. “There’s always been a minority of residents who want to leave it exactly the same. There’s a minority on the other end who want Ferris wheels and rock concerts. A really strong majority support more public access without attracting more people than the infrastructure can handle,” he said. 

Fred Silny and his wife, Judy Jurdan, live on West Silver Lake Drive in a two-level house with a view of the reservoir. They bought the property in 1986, raised their son there and have now retired.

“I loved it because it was peaceful and quiet and a great place to raise kids,” Silny said.

Silny and Jurdan supported the addition of a walking path, dog park and meadow in the 2000s. They continue to support modest improvements to the reservoir, like putting in a pedestrian path at the southern tip, but they said the neighborhood can only accommodate so much change.

“You get to a point where it gets more and more difficult,” Silny said. “I just don’t see how you can keep a neighborhood a neighborhood and do development.”

Silny and his wife said they worried that an expanded park would bring excessive car and foot traffic to the neighborhood, exacerbating congestion and parking shortages, as well as possibly spurring an uptick in crime.

“We pay the property taxes,” Jurdan said, but “there’s nothing to accommodate us.”

A couple of doors down, Kevin Souls said he too felt conflicted. “While I’d like to see some more beautification, I don’t want the neighborhood to get more crowded,” Souls said.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a USC professor who studies urban planning and economic development, was sympathetic to longtime residents’ wariness of change but said that concerns about overcrowding miss the point of public space.

“Public space is for the public,” she said. “If the space around the reservoir is redeveloped and it’s very attractive and desirable, of course there will be more car traffic and foot traffic.… That’s a good problem to have. It means you have created a successful public space.”

Currid-Halkett said fears about an influx of people clogging the streets and making them more dangerous are overblown.

“I think in cases like this an equilibrium would emerge,” she said. “If it is that difficult to navigate and then park on Silver Lake’s narrow streets, we would also see less demand to come to the neighborhood.”

She noted too that crime is likely to go down rather than up with the presence of more people on the streets and residents who have a vested interest in keeping the neighborhood safe.

Public space brings other positives as well, Currid-Halkett said. “It increases real estate values, it creates the vibrancies of urban life that many people in cities crave [and] it’s important for social capital” — the human relationships that make people want to invest in their community and in one another, she said.

Many residents are eager for the kind of space that Currid-Halkett describes.

Emily Bills said she and her family use the meadow, recreation center and walking path all the time. “We would do more if there [were] more,” she said.

About concerns of overcrowding, Bills, a homeowner, shrugged and said, “I don’t think it’s our right to keep public space to a neighborhood.”

Anna Elledge, who rents an apartment on Silver Lake Boulevard, said she loves having a park in walking distance and brings her baby to the recreation center almost every day.

“If I didn’t have this spot, I’d be a pretty lonely mom,” Elledge said. “The reservoir isn’t really a place you can go.”

Jeremy Grant, a Seattle native and recent transplant to Silver Lake, said he wished that the reservoir had more spaces like the meadow — a beautiful public area where people can hang out. “It just feels like too much of an oasis, like it’s the only spot for that,” Grant said.

The debate is likely to continue for months to come. For now, there is no plan and no funding other than for refilling the reservoir; officials say they will begin piping in groundwater in May.

Representatives of Silver Lake Forward, Refill Silver Lake Now and the Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy have been meeting privately to find common ground on short-term improvements and on asking the city to facilitate a planning process. Council members Ryu and O’Farrell say they will hire a consultant in 2017 to gather community input about the reservoir’s future.

In the meantime, the storied “Silver Lake” remains such only in name.

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

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