In a tense meeting that lasted nearly 10 hours, the Irvine City Council voted 3-2 early Wednesday to push ahead with a 688-acre Great Park. They also approved an environmental impact report for 4,606 homes a developer wants to build east of the park.
Mayor Steven Choi, along with council members Christine Shea and Jeff Lalloway, voted to approve the FivePoint Communities package. Lalloway had been seen as a swing vote who said he'd been "bullied" and "threatened" before revealing his decision to support the plan.
Councilman Larry Agran, who along with Beth Krom voted against the proposal, slammed the report, which he said "fails the test" by not exploring alternative locations for a high school planned for the grounds. And Agran again voiced his opposition to plans for yet another golf course in Irvine.
Residents filled the 300-seat meeting room, clapping or booing those who came forward during the public comment period as police on motorcycles patrolled outside City Hall. But the vote they came to hear was delayed repeatedly throughout the night as Choi and Agran bickered.
FivePoint, owner of the land surrounding the park, dangled $172 million to create trails, sports fields, a wildlife corridor and an 18-hole golf course in exchange for the right to construct 4,606 homes. Emile Haddad, its president and chief executive, warned that the offer would expire Tuesday night after council members -- who met just two weeks ago in a marathon session -- could not agree on their direction.
Six hours into this week's meeting, it appeared as if consensus would again fail to be reached. The proposal sharply split the two camps, with one side pressuring for the park to be finished sooner. Those against the proposal cited a lack of cultural space and fears of the site becoming too "theme park-like," with public officials influenced by private business.
One of the biggest groups in favor of seeing the plan move forward included veterans pleading for an item on their wish list: a state veterans cemetery on the grounds, a feature that's not part of the park plans at this time.
"What better way to honor the service of our soldiers and elevate this city to a great stature in California?" asked Bill Cook, a chaplain for the American Legion.
Gil Flores of the Vietnam Veterans of America said he and his peers were "united in our quest for a final resting place" that would also boost community involvement, bringing streams of visitors to Irvine.
Lalloway and Shea told the council to "leave politics" out of the debate while Krom and Agran continued to dissect the environmental impact report, peppering city staff with questions about land use and traffic.
The eventual vote came with demands by Lalloway to allow the city, rather than the developer, to control park operations and maintenance starting in 2016, with FivePoint giving the city $10 million to do the work -- plus another $10 million for improvements to Marine Way, the entrance to the site. “I will defend to the death Irvine’s ability to run its parks," Lalloway said.
"We are in the middle of a historic moment," Choi, the mayor, announced, urging his colleagues to support FivePoint, then later trying to convince them to take action by midnight. "We have a chance to build a park beneficial to the whole county."