El Toro Airport Foes Unveil 'New Vision' as Alternative

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hailing it as the best plan to ensure Orange County's economic future and quality of life, opponents of a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on Monday unveiled their proposal to instead develop a sprawling mini-metropolis at the surplus military base.

The plan, which cost about $1 million to develop, has as its centerpiece a 360-acre central park with botanical gardens in addition to nearly 500 acres for homes, a 76-acre stadium and about 1,300 acres for a business and technology center that would include a university campus.

"Today we are launching a new vision for Orange County," said Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson, who opposes a plan for a commercial airport at the 4,700-acre base. "For those who are worried about commercial and cargo jets flying over their heads, this plan is bigger and better than an airport. . . . I think this plan will open a lot of eyes in the county."

The El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, the agency composed of southern Orange County elected officials that is charged by the county Board of Supervisors with putting together a non-aviation alternative for the base, said its concept would generate about 110,000 jobs--including about 45,000 on-site--and result in about $8.2 million in net annual revenues for the county by 2020.

But the non-aviation plan has little chance of becoming reality unless Measure A, which changed the county's general plan in 1994 to permit a commercial airport at El Toro, is overturned by another countywide ballot measure. No such measure is in the works as yet.

With the Marines expected to leave in July 1999, this is a critical year for deciding the base's future. In April, the county will present four preliminary schemes for a commercial airport, a plan that is opposed by most southern Orange County voters, who have cited fears of greater noise, heavier traffic congestion and lower property values.

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Another major obstacle to the non-aviation plan is that anti-airport county Supervisors Wilson and Todd Spitzer are in the minority on the board, which is the lead agency in charge of the reuse process for the military base.

Political observers say that it would take an upset in this year's supervisorial elections to tilt the board's balance and give the plan a chance of being implemented.

"This plan has a lot of elements which would be popular with Orange County residents," said Mark Baldassare, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine who has conducted several polls on the airport issue.

"However," he said, "the political reality is that the county has had two votes on the issue and the Board of Supervisors has moved ahead with a plan that calls for the predominant use of the land to be an airport. Unless there is a political change, it's unlikely that this will ever get off the drawing boards."

Airport foes are keenly aware of the uphill political battle that they must wage.

To increase public awareness about the plan, the El Toro authority plans to show the proposal to supervisors today and visit northern and central county cities in an attempt to sway undecided residents.

But the road show will not be enough, airport opponents concede.

"There are two seats open on the Board of Supervisors," said Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, and they are in predominantly pro-airport districts. "We need to do everything we can to get one more vote on that board and turn around the direction of Orange County."

Besides the political considerations, airport supporters argue that the non-aviation plan is not economically viable, pointing out that the county already has major retail areas, parks and a stadium in Anaheim that was recently renovated.

"Just in the city of Irvine, in the city's general plan, there is an excess of 131.5 million square feet of office/industrial/institution space," said Newport Beach Mayor Tom Edwards, a staunch airport supporter. "That is larger than downtown Los Angeles and Century City combined. And now they are going to add another 12 million [square feet] of office space? I do not believe it is sustainable. It's Fantasyland south."

Esmael Adibi, director of the Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University, said the key would be to find the financial backing to develop the plan.

"It's difficult for people to tell the market what is going to be there," Adibi said. "In any venture of this size, the question would be who would pay for the risk? If the private sector builds residential units, there would be a positive impact. The question would be who is going to put up the money upfront to start this?"

Anti-airport planners say that their research, based on county projections for growth, supports their ideas.

Orange County's population, which has increased by 46,000 people annually since 1990, is expected to grow by 379,000 between 2000 and 2020, with 43% of the growth from Tustin to San Clemente.

Housing needs have not kept up with the burgeoning population, say the authority's planners, who maintain that the plan to build 6,000 single-family, retirement and rental apartment units in the area would help alleviate some of that need.

In addition, the county's employment growth rates have averaged 1.7% from 1990 to 1997, and future employment growth rates are expected to average 2.3% annually through 2020. Nearly 36% of those new jobs are expected to be in southern Orange County, planners say.

"We have looked very carefully at these growth numbers and what the needs are and we have looked very carefully at the available land to identify if this will be supported," said Richard Gollis, principal of the Concord Group, which did the economic and market analysis of the plan. "The project itself generates demand and will provide employment opportunities for South County."

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The ambitious proposal calls for the area to become an urban village in which residents could walk to the parks, restaurants and theaters. Traffic congestion would be eased by opening major arteries from the larger thoroughfares like the transportation corridor and the San Diego Freeway.

Planners estimate that the total cost of building the project by 2020 would be $683 million.

The cost includes buying the property from the federal government, ripping out the runways and building the infrastructure necessary to maintain the property, planners say.

None of the expenses would involve taxpayer money; funding would come from bond sales, developer investments and assessment districts, according to planners.

County officials say that their airport plan would cost about $1.4 billion, with all of the money coming from airport revenue bonds and federal funding.

The plan to build an airport for 38 million passengers annually by 2020 would generate 143,000 countywide jobs with an average annual salary of $30,000, airport proponents say. The county is expected to net $6.1 million a year in revenues from both its airport and non-airport uses by 2020.

Despite the hurdles, airport opponents remain optimistic that once the public sees the details of their plan, residents will be convinced that it is the way to go.

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