Raising the River

Robert T. de Forest is putting his joint degree to work in revitalizing the iconic Los Angeles river

written by Mimi Zeiger
photography by JB Fitts

 

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The Los Angeles River has had an identity crisis ever since the 1930s when the United States Army Corps of Engineers encased its banks in concrete in order to control flooding. The public imagines the river as a 51-mile-long storm drain; its moments of fame came from movies - a drag race in Grease or Terminator 2's apocalyptic motorcycle chase. But UCLA Anderson alumnus Robert T. De Forest ('06) sees the L.A. River as vital to the economic and environmental health of the city - past, present, and future. "People settled here because of the river," he says of L.A.'s pueblo roots on the riverbank. "Now, it's about getting people to understand we have a river."

De Forest is founder and managing principal of The Pinyon Group, a real estate investment and advisory firm that 
sees conservation and sustainable urban growth as a critical part of development. Advising both institutions and individuals that span the spectrum from private investors to governmental organizations to nonprofits, the firm oversees investments in projects geared toward making an impact on Los Angeles' overall ecology. Presently, The Pinyon Group is working with the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (RRC) to bring life back to the neighborhoods alongside the river, often overlooked communities and former industrial sites.

De Forest graduated from UCLA in 2006 with a dual degree - an MBA in finance and real estate from UCLA Anderson, and a MA in urban planning from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His education, plus his time prior to grad school when he worked to develop open space in inner-city L.A., led him to understand that reinvestment supports holistic growth and entrepreneurial possibilities: case in point, the historic Lincoln Heights Jail, a grim 230,000 square foot facility on the L.A. River's east bank. The team -the RRC, architecture firm Perkins+Will and The Pinyon Group - are aligning the jail with the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Specific Plan rezoning initiative that capitalizes on transit-oriented and environmentally conscious growth and the City of Los Angeles' business-minded Cleantech Corridor.

De Forest's commitment to integrating real estate development goals with ecological conservation has made this an ideal partnership for the RRC. "Robert represents a new generation of entrepreneurs. The old model of a successful career was you would learn, earn, then return. Today, there is a convergence between earning and returning, between money and meaning," says the RRC's executive director, Omar Brownson.

The RRC asked architecture firm Perkins + Will to tackle the scheme on a pro bono basis and, undauntedly, the designers envisioned the concrete behemoth covered in green, with a multi-story climbing wall and a 24,000-square-foot rooftop garden. The sky-high agriculture is part of the demonstration phase of a decades-long redevelopment plan. With an event space perched in the garden, it's the first step in getting people to recognize the value of the L.A. River.

"Efforts surrounding the river involve more than just environmental sustainability," notes De Forest. "Issues of not only financial feasibility, but also financial sustainability are a particular focus of mine. These considerations are all the more crucial given today's economic and fiscal strains." Stuart Gabriel, Arden Realty Chair, Professor of Finance and Director, Richard S. Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA, agrees with De Forest that investment strategy today comes with multiple requirements, which are reflected in UCLA Anderson's real estate coursework. This winter, the school introduces a new course into the MBA program: Real Estate Social Entrepreneurship. "We, like Robb, look at real estate from a double or triple perspective," explains Gabriel. "The bottom line not only includes profit, but environmental sustainability and social responsibility."

Recently, the Los Angeles River Expanded Public Access Bill passed the California State Assembly and it is expected to get a sign-off from Governor Brown. The bill includes, for the first time, recreation and education as part of the river's evolution. Although it might seem counterintuitive, development along the river is in harmony with conservation and a vision of a riparian landscape and navigable waterway. More constituents along the banks mean more awareness, advocacy, and investment. Or, as De Forest puts it, "When the river is part of your community, you care about its future."