Frogtown: Designing Strategies for a Resilient, Placed-based Economy on the Los Angeles River

Over the last century, the Elysian Valley community adjacent to the Los Angeles River has had various names: Gopher Flats, Little River Valley, and by the 1930’s, Frogtown. The name is intact today, but the neighborhood is in danger of being gentrified by outside investors seeking to capitalize on planned green infrastructure along the LA River, including development of the key G2 parcel directly across the LA River. The G2 parcel is projected to be a key green infrastructure projects along the LA River. While it will likely bring revitalized ecosystems and new interactions with the river; critics worry that such a large-scale development project will bring the negative externalizes of ‘green gentrification,’ including increased development pressure on the working class surrounding neighborhoods; potentially displacing residents and small businesses. Frogtown deserves to be developed with the involvement of its users and residents to preserve its character and place-based economies.


The development pressures in Frogtown are both unique to the neighborhood and similar to many others in burgeoning Los Angeles County. Economies worldwide grow in complexity as technological advancements and sharing abilities break conventional industry barriers and expand consumer bases. This wave of globalization can often lead to commodified urban experiences. Visitors and investors flock to cities across America in search of the ‘next big thing’ to experience it, share it, and ultimately consume it.  Unfortunately, this process can lead to inequitable and unsustainable development, fueled by investments which do not prioritize community needs.  Historically underrepresented communities lacking organizational mechanisms and marketable identities are often swept up and rebranded by greater powers in ways insensitive toward existing residents and users.


This project explores how an expanding cultural desire for urban experience may be harnessed through various strategies to achieve place-based economic viability in which community members participate with stakeholders to develop an equitable and sustainable product and place for all.  Design and planning scenarios visualize how place-based economic interventions can unfold over time in Frogtown. These include capitalizing on its unique character and burgeoning development pressures to organize existing resources, acquire capital, and encourage healthy development.


Goals and Objectives

This project leverages Frogtown’s public and private amenities to generate place-based economic purpose and consumer driven equity using physical intervention, social organization, and policy reform.  The main goals are to develop a new economic identity for the Frogtown using incremental and catalytic techniques to build equity and resiliency in the community while maintaining its unique character and marketing the community from within, as a unique urban experience. 


Community Analysis

The project used a combination of analyses to understand the neighborhood. Data triangulation combining U.S. Census analysis, an online survey of residents, social media engagement campaign, and on-site observations provided a convincing and accurate understanding of Frogtown’s people. Key findings include:

●     The majority of site users surveyed considered themselves active in the community;

●     The household median income is relatively low for Los Angeles;

●     Thirty-seven percent of household income is used for housing;

●     The majority of users considered small businesses a high priority in the community;

●     There are a number of opportunities and constraints for place-based interventions near the LA River, including:

○     Limited access;

○     Vacant lots and parking lots;

○     Declining industrial real estate;

○     Dead-end streets.


These findings point to a community that has been historically underserved and underrepresented.  However, the neighborhood holds great potential based on its unique physical character, rich cultural ties, and diverse residents.


Design and Planning Approach: Implementation of Place-based Economies

The project uses a progression of three planning scenarios to visualize possible community futures, while presenting a complex set of strategies that support Frogtown’s character.  These scenarios consist of three toolboxes assigned through community engagement structured to maintain the unique neighborhood character and increase economic and use-value. To effectively deploy these planning scenarios, the project includes two design techniques: connecting the neighborhood to the Los Angeles River Trail and using consumer behavior analysis techniques to implement tactical urban layouts.


Three Planning Scenarios Implementing Three Toolboxes

The project has three scenarios which allow for strategic unfolding. The scenarios are implemented over five years and act as a adaptable framework which the Frogtown community can use to encourage economic development while protecting their community character and resources. The scenarios are guides that envision a field of possibilities—feedback loops that create placed-based economic and social resiliencies providing value over time.

These three scenarios include, in order:


1)    Building on existing community resources;

2)    Ephemeral interventions and organization; and

3)    New development and adaptive reuse.


Each scenario uses three toolboxes: economic activation, local food economy, and small-scale manufacturing. These combined scenarios and toolboxes create nine total strategies. The nine strategies are:


Scenario One: Building on Existing Community Resources

a.    Organize a Community Business Association (economic activation)

Community-based non-profit organization which brings together local business owners and stakeholders for collaboration and mutually beneficial relationships.

b.    Develop Community Gardens (local food economy)

Community gardens provide a place for the community to grow its own food, creating a viable source of income and fresh, healthy food.  Community gardens form the first link in the chain of place-based food supply. 

c.     Organize a Community Based Organization for Manufacturing (small-scale manufacturing)

The first step in promoting small-scale manufacturing and artistry requires the formation of a local non-profit organization that is capable of acquiring funding for the purchasing, redevelopment, and management of existing industrial real estate.  This organizations primary function is to act as a facilitator between local businesses, existing property owners, larger organizations, and government agencies.


Scenario Two: Ephemeral Interventions and Organization

a.    Implement Way-finding + Pop-up Storefronts (economic activation)

Temporary or permanent use of outdoor space to create more useful modes of commerce for local businesses.

b.    Designate space for Food Trucks (local food economy)

Interstitial spaces along trail and adjacent areas are set aside for food trucks by expanding the existing public right of way along the Los Angeles River Trail.

c.     Los Angeles Small-Scale Manufacturing Development Fund (small-scale manufacturing)

The second step in promoting small-scale manufacturing requires organizations to use their influence to address contingency in the industrial real estate market.  The City of Los Angeles should develop a new fund which awards grants to mission-driven organizations aiding in the equitable use of industrial spaces for small-scale manufacturing.


Scenario Three: New Development and Adaptive Reuse

a.    Develop Business Incubators (economic activation)

These organizations focus on catalyzing new business growth in the community by providing early, pre-revenue companies with space and resources to succeed as well as hosting space for more mature businesses and providing necessary services.

b.    Develop Food Cooperatives and Commissaries (local food economy)

A hybrid of local producer and consumer owners form a

multi-stakeholder cooperative.  This cooperative provides a legal structure which offers a low-cost of entry and strong bargaining power for owners.

California state law requires that food preparation must be done within a designated food truck or a registered commissary.  Commissaries provide food preparation space and parking, hookups, water and propane refills, grey water disposal, and a physical business address for food truck owners.

c.     Develop Light Manufacturing + Artist Hubs (small-scale manufacturing).

By forming a non-profit and acquiring funding from the new Los Angeles Development Fund, businesses can purchase declining, large scale industrial buildings and convert them into multi-tenant light manufacturing/artist hubs.


Design Techniques to Deploy Planning Scenarios

The project maximizes Frogtown economic interactions by attracting pedestrian activity using two main techniques: connecting the neighborhood to the Los Angeles River Trail and using consumer behavior analysis techniques to implement a tactical urban design. Paths and spaces are re-imagined to take advantage of the catalytic potential embedded within them through radical incrementalism and active contingency planning. Together these design techniques will help create viable, place-based economies and spaces as the nine strategies unfold in Frogtown.