ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Irvine Monorail: Off Track Already?

The city of Irvine dreams of having monorails that would hook up eventually with a larger Orange County system. What's more, it sees itself as a kind of laboratory, where it would become a player in distributing the peace dividend by helping local defense manufacturers convert to building monorails.

A City Council vote this week cleared the way for the initial phase of a planned five-mile loop of the business district. But even before the first half-mile is built, the problems of getting a city-driven monorail system off the ground are proving to be much more a test of wise municipal planning than of post-Cold War industrial policy.

The dispute began early this month when the Planning Commission approved a twin-tower office project for McDonnell Douglas Realty Co., with the understanding that the developer would build the first leg of the monorail system. It is to extend from John Wayne Airport to the parking garage of the proposed office towers across MacArthur Boulevard. That's a congested neighborhood as it is, and for its trouble, the developer will get to build an additional 195,000 square feet, the equivalent of an 11-story office building.

So the deal is that the city gets a leg up on its monorail dream, but at the price of a substantial increase in density in an area that already is a traffic headache. It was a pretty generous exchange, indeed. That's especially so, considering that for the short term, at least, there would be a very limited ridership for the monorail. Any real public benefit of a future citywide system will depend on how successful the city is in assembling its larger plan.

In the planning that lies aheads, the city can be certain also that other developers will look for such favorable allowances. That will make the review process doubly tough, even as the city wrestles with the question of how much office space is enough, at a time when there is abundant office space available.

Irvine virtually allowed the developer to specify the amount of extra office space it could build. True, the developer will finance a traffic study and assume risk. But next time, the city should have its own standard, to better guard the public interest in establishing a fair trade.

The recent dedication of Irvine's new train station, a key component of the monorail scheme, and now this agreement with McDonnell Douglas, surely will encourage system proponents. But a word to the wise: In the enthusiasm to jump into the 21st Century, don't give away the store.

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