Backers of a proposed sports and entertainment complex on an Irvine portion of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station moved ahead with plans Thursday to try to bring the $500-million project to fruition, despite a crescendo of opposition.
Headed by Pacific Palisades sports entrepreneur Michael O’Hara, the project team promised to schedule a trip to Washington to lobby area lawmakers and forward its elaborate proposal to the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority--a group of South County cities that have no authority over the base but are united in their opposition to an airport.
O’Hara said Thursday he intends to convince the necessary parties that building a sprawling, multipurpose complex anchored by an 80,000-seat stadium aimed at luring a National Football League team would be a “much higher and better use” for the base than a commercial airport.
“We’re offering folks an alternative vision,” O’Hara said during a Newport Beach lunch meeting attended by several key backers of the plan. “We see it as something very exciting, something to build on, something that could really catch on in Orange County.”
But county officials, proponents of the airport and city officials in Anaheim voiced skepticism or outright opposition to the project, which would also include a 3,000-room hotel--the largest in the county--a 350,000-square-foot convention center, an “NFL Experience” theme park, eight softball fields, a golf course and an annual auto grand prix.
O’Hara, who served as top lieutenant to Peter Ueberroth during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and has a resume that includes executive stints in the now-defunct World Hockey Assn. and American Basketball Assn., said the project would be privately financed, with 40% of the cost coming from a New Delhi-based conglomerate.
Still, the plan’s primary hurdle is enormous. The Orange County Board of Supervisors, the federally recognized planning authority for the base, has already endorsed an airport at El Toro, in part because of two countywide votes supporting that option.
Courtney Wiercioch, the county’s appointed spokeswoman for issues related to El Toro, all but dismissed the project Thursday, saying it appears to be at odds with “other uses at the base” and in the community at large.
In the county’s view, Wiercioch said, the project fails to complement either an airport--the preferred alternative--or existing sports and convention facilities in Anaheim.
“The county is responsible for planning the entire base property,” said Wiercioch, the county’s assistant chief executive officer for public affairs. “If any firm--or city--intends on taking advantages of the opportunities presented by the base closing, then they should be contacting the county . . . and no one else.
“Neither Taxpayers for Responsible Planning [the group behind the stadium proposal] nor the city of Irvine are tasked with planning the reuse of the base,” she added. “That authority rests solely, and entirely, with the county of Orange.”
City officials in Anaheim were also cool to the proposal.
Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly said he would rather not comment, “because I don’t like commenting on hypothetical projects. At this point, it’s only a drawing on a piece of paper. You’re taking a great leap . . . if you think it will even be built.”
Daly said he would oppose any proposal that eliminates a commercial airport at El Toro.
“Anaheim has been on record as supporting a conversion of the base to a commercial airport for many years,” he said.
Anaheim hopes to attract its own NFL franchise to play in a 75,000-seat stadium once proposed as part of its elaborate Sportstown development, which already includes Anaheim Stadium and the Pond. A project at El Toro would conflict with those plans.
In Irvine, the reaction was decidedly different.
Councilman Dave Christiansen said his phone had been “ringing off the hook” with “people calling to offer their support for the project--they’re thrilled about it.”
Anticipating the possibility of such an announcement, Christiansen said city officials took steps weeks ago to rezone the 440 acres of El Toro land on which the project would rest for the very items outlined in O’Hara’s plan.
The 440 acres in question are owned by the federal government and are part of the base but fall entirely within Irvine. The land is also at the center of a legal battle: Irvine city sued the county over its plans for the base and the county in turn has sued Irvine over its plans for the 440-acre parcel.
“Our goal in Irvine is to find alternative uses to an airport that we can put before the voters,” Christiansen said. “We don’t want to be in competition with Anaheim, and we don’t need to be. Anaheim has the arena and the baseball stadium. We would have the football stadium, the golf course and a racing venue. Our concepts need not be--and are not--incompatible.”
But an official overseeing the conversion of El Toro said the federal government will not entertain the rival proposal for the base--unless it is backed by the county.
“We will work with only one [local redevelopment authority], which is Orange County itself,” said Paul Reyff of the Pentagon Office of Economic Adjustment. “We can’t be dealing with any others.”
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El Toro Option
The $500-million plan to place a sports and entertainment complex on the grounds of what is now El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is centered on an 80,000-seat stadium designed to attract a National Football League team. Parking lots would accommodate about 13,000 cars. Here’s how the pieces would fit:
Sources: Michael O’Hara, Jo Paul Rognstad; Researched by MICHAEL GRANBERRY / Los Angeles Times