April 23, 2017
It was a grand plan.
A metropolitan oasis, with a mix of wilderness areas, museums, schools, farms, shops and homes three times the size of San Diego’s Balboa Park and every bit as beautiful. That was the early vision Irvine officials presented for the former El Toro Marine Corps base after the last Marines left in 1999.
But driven partly by economic realities, financial controversies and shifting tastes in activities and priorities, the plan for the Orange County Great Park, which sprawls north of the 5 and 405 freeway junction into the foothills, has evolved, sparking a debate about how best to serve the long-term public interest.
And the pace of decision-making on what amenities to keep, discard and adjust by the current stewards of the park’s vision, the five elected members of the Irvine City Council, has accelerated.
Construction is beginning on an Anaheim Ducks’ mega community ice rink complex and bids are being accepted for a commercially-operated water park — both more recent additions. Also, the first phase of a 175-acre sports park — including 24 tennis courts, six soccer fields, five volleyball courts and a playground plus three “championship” stadiums for soccer, volleyball and tennis — is slated to open by early summer.
The city of Irvine is developing the 1,300-acre Orange County Great Park at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.(Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Some say the changes are better, more realistic and doable — a modern, dynamic approach to planning for generations of public enjoyment of scarce urban open space, at a time when when many cities are struggling to balance budgets. Planning and building the park in phases allows the city to make sure it has enough funding and is responsive to changing community needs, city officials said.
“I’m not going to make promises on what it’s going to be because we’ll all be off the council by the time we put final touches to the park,” Councilman Jeff Lalloway said. “All I can do is, we make good decisions here and now to make it something we can be proud of.”
Others, including some residents, fear a historic opportunity to transform a last, huge tract of land into a Southern California respite with iconic passive features — such as a 60-foot deep man-made canyon — is slipping away into a jumble of commercial attractions, additional housing and sport-specific activity centers.
Former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran was a leading proponent of the initial Great Park vision. He argues a council majority elected in 2012 substituted the original master plan with a “mishmash of ideas” and ceded too much control to development firm FivePoint, which was given rights to develop additional homes.
“The master plan doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “It’s a total sellout to developers.”
FivePoint chairman and CEO Emile Haddad said his company’s role in the Great Park was agreed to by the city and is a matter of public record. “The agreement speaks for itself,” he said.
He added that a number of high profile features in the park, such as the ice rinks and water park, were negotiated between the city and other companies.
Susan and Henry Samueli, center, owners of the Anaheim Ducks, drop a giant hockey puck as Michael Schulman, left, CEO of the Anaheim Ducks and Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, right, kickoff the groundbreaking of Great Park Ice Sports Complex at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine on Feb. 16, 2017. It will be one of the largest public ice facilities in the country and will open in mid 2018.(Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Increasingly, the park’s future appears to hinge on striking a delicate balance between private sector partnerships needed to secure the funds to develop and maintain the property and preserving as much free access to amenities as possible.
Depending on the activities offered, the park could become a regional draw, attracting people from Los Angeles and even San Diego, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at UCLA.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Irvine pulls it off because it’s a wealthy community,” she said. “It would be a great example for other cities.”
The idea of a great park was born out of Irvine’s successful effort to kill a county proposal to build an international airport at the closed El Toro base.
Orange County voters in 2002 passed Measure W, which called for a combination of an urban regional park and a variety of other uses at the site.
The original proposal included 4,300 acres of open space, the Register reported at the time. That’s an area large enough to encompass Disneyland, New York City’s Central Park, San Diego’s Balboa Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
It eventually was reduced to about 1,300 acres through negotiations with Lennar Corp., which bought the base property and gave the park area to the city in exchange for rights to develop a series of neighborhoods around the recreational amenities and open space.
In 2007, the city adopted a $1 billion Great Park master plan, featuring a two-mile long man-made canyon, a lake, trails, museums, a library, a botanical garden, a sports park, open meadows, groves, lawn areas and a wildlife corridor.
Then came the recession. The state eliminated redevelopment agency funds, which the city was counting on to pay for the park development.
The makeup of the City Council changed in the 2012 election, putting a new Republican majority in charge. They accused Agran, a Democrat, and a nonprofit corporation created to develop the park of mismanaging funds and spending more than $250 million, with little to show for it.
A City Council commissioned audit of the project concluded the lack of a realistic, detailed budget was among the factors dooming the park project. Agran called the audit “a political witch hunt” and said all funds were accounted for.
In 2013, the newly seated council reached an agreement with developer FivePoint to construct 688 acres of the park including the 175-acre sports park, along with an 18-hole golf course, trails, agricultural fields, playgrounds, open space and a wildlife corridor.
In exchange, FivePoint won approval to build more than 4,600 additional homes adjacent to the park.
In February, the Anaheim Ducks began building its $100 million community ice complex and practice facility at the Great Park. The city also is seeking proposals from a potential operator of the proposed water park and exploring the creation of a world-class aquatics center with USA Water Polo.
In March, the council approved FivePoint’s proposal to open a 12,000-seat temporary amphitheater adjacent to the Great Park, while the city figures out its plan to build a permanent amphitheater.
In March, the council approved FivePoint’s proposal to open a 12,000-seat temporary amphitheater adjacent to the Great Park, while the city figures out its plan to build a permanent amphitheater. (Rendering courtesy of FivePoint)
And the city this month committed $38 million toward a military veterans cemetery at the former Marine base.
The golf course, ice complex and water park weren’t mentioned in the older plan.
But Lalloway said most of the amenities from the 2007 master plan, except for the canyon, are still included in the plan.
Loukaitou-Sideris, the UCLA urban planning professor, said Irvine’s Great Park is an unusual case in the modern era.
Massive metropolitan parks like New York’s Central Park and Griffith Park in Los Angeles were the products of the 19th century, when it was considered a city’s responsibility to provide restful escapes from teeming, rapidly growing industrial age cities, she said.
“Fast forward to the end of 20th century, it has been almost impossible for a city to acquire a big chunk of land because of the market reality,” she said.
Land in urban cores has gotten too expensive and, in suburbs such as Irvine, there’s already enough parks. Assembling a mega recreational open space is no longer a priority, she said.
But Irvine was given a rare opportunity with the closure of the Marine base, Loukaitou-Sideris said. Another notable example, she said, is the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park slated to open Saturday at an abandoned rail yard.
Irvine could set an example for other cities if it secures revenue sources to build and maintain the Great Park, working with private entities, while keeping it open to everyone, Loukaitou-Sideris said.
On Thursday morning, Michael Diaz visited the Great Park for the first time with his sister and two nieces to ride a hot-air balloon, which has been a focal point of the park thus far.
The 32-year-old South Central Los Angeles resident said the park lacked enough features to convince him to drive nearly an hour for a return visit, but added he was impressed by the expanse of undeveloped areas.
Disneyland is the only reason he normally comes to Orange County, he said. But that may change if all the park’s promised features are completed, he said.
“I would definitely come here more than two to three times a month,” Diaz said. “That’s going to be a huge draw for people especially during the spring and summer time.”
Councilwoman Christina Shea, who was first elected in 1992, said she expects to see 688 acres of the park built, under the agreement with FivePoint, within the next two years.
An area designated as a 248-acre Cultural Terrace, with more costly projects such as museums, a permanent amphitheater, a lake and a library, could be completed in 10 to 15 years, she said.
“The victory is to get it built,” she said. “It’s that simple.”
2002: Voters pass Measure W that would create an urban regional park at the closed El Toro Marine base.
2005: Lennar Corp. buys the former base for $649.5 million and offers the City of Irvine 1,347 acres for the Great Park.
2007: The Great Park Balloon opens to the public. The city approves the Great Park master plan.
2011: The state eliminates Redevelopment Agencies.
2013: The newly elected City Council begins audit of the Great Park development. The 88-acre Western Sector of the Great Park opens; features include a Hangar 244 event center, North Lawn and Palm Court. The council approves a plan for developer FivePoint to build 688 acres of the park.
2017: In February, the Anaheim Ducks began building its $100 million community ice complex and practice facility at the Great Park. In March, the council approved a proposal to open a 12,000-seat temporary amphitheater adjacent to the Great Park. And in April, the city committed $38 million toward a military veterans cemetery at the former Marine base.