The idea was splendid: Turn the flat, featureless Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into a vast, bucolic landscape of forests, lawns, a man-made canyon and lake, alongside sports fields, botanical gardens and museums. There would be something for everyone, an oasis of nature surrounded by suburbia and also a center to gather for concerts and museums.
It was to be the Great Park, Orange County's answer to Balboa Park in San Diego and twice as big as New York's Central Park.
But more than a decade later, about 230 acres of the 1,347-acre parcel are in use, and nearly half of that is leased for commercial farming. There are some soccer fields, lawns, ponds, an arts complex and a giant orange balloon ride. But there is no more money to transform the remaining runways and weeds into the destination voters were promised in 2002 when they decided to build a grand public park on the property instead of an international airport. The Great Park's ambitious plan was stalled by the Great Recession. It was further hobbled in 2012 when California eliminated redevelopment agencies and took $1.4 billion in property taxes for its own general fund that would have otherwise funded the project.
So, it's understandable that some frustrated Irvine leaders have embraced a proposal by developer FivePoint Communities to construct 688 acres of the park in exchange for nearly doubling the number of houses the firm can build on the park's perimeter. The company has approval to put 4,900 homes there, but wants 4,600 more.
Under the proposal, the city of Irvine would get the bulk of the park, at the developer's expense. And the work would be done in a matter of years instead of decades.
But it wouldn't be the Great Park. The FivePoint plan is a more conventional, scaled-down version of the Great Park's master plan. It would include more sports fields, including national tournament-level facilities. It scraps the project's centerpiece: a 2-mile-long, 60-foot-deep man-made canyon that planners envisioned as "a place to wander and daydream." The canyon would be replaced by a 188-acre municipal golf course — where, presumably, wandering and daydreaming would not be allowed, due to safety concerns.
Does Orange County really need another golf course to be used by a few, in a park that was envisioned to serve the many? In their rush to get the Great Park developed and to deal with the undeniable financial challenges, Irvine city council members could end up squandering the opportunity to build something truly special. They should demand more of FivePoint Communities. The developer and the city should go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan closer to the ambition of the original project.
The full, grand vision of the Great Park may never come to fruition. But the city of Irvine and Orange County shouldn't settle for a Pretty Good Park.