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Big Setback for Great Park?

Times Staff Writers

Is the Great Park turning into the Great Lot?

With the rejection of Proposition 51, Irvine won’t get $120 million it had hoped to use to begin transforming the closed El Toro Marine base into a massive open space and recreation area.

The ballot measure was resoundingly defeated in every Orange County city -- including Irvine -- as well as statewide, suggesting that even local voters don’t want general fund money redirected to the Great Park.

No problem, says Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, who was reelected Tuesday on a platform of getting the park built. He said the $120 million would have merely been icing on the cake. Agran says he is confident that fees from developers permitted to build on 15% of the 4,700-acre base will pay for the whole project. He insists he will keep his vow not to raise taxes for the park.

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“I think this sets us back maybe a year,” Agran said.

Other park proponents warn that it’s much worse than that. Without the massive infusion of cash from the state budget, they say, large swaths of the base could remain untouched for years -- or even decades.

“I can’t imagine anyone saying this money was icing on the cake,” said former Irvine Mayor Christina L. Shea, who will rejoin the park planning process if she holds onto her razor-thin lead over Agran ally Mitch Goldstone in Tuesday’s City Council election. “This money was the cake, the plate and the serving utensils, to boot.”

Voters endorsed the park plan in March when they approved a county ballot initiative that killed a proposed airport at the base. But the Proposition 51 defeat suggests that residents may be less enthusiastic about seeing the park actually get built than they were about using it as a reason to kill the airport.

Tuesday’s vote also reflects the confusing nature of the proposition, which included dozens of projects statewide and was pitched as a “safe school bus” and “transportation” measure.

While Agran expresses confidence that developers will pay for the whole thing, he has yet to disclose the math behind his plan.

Under it, developers who win the right to build at the base through public auction would contribute to the park. Urban planners say it costs up to $200,000 an acre to build and maintain the kind of park Agran envisions.

And many in the building industry are skeptical that developers will be willing to foot the whole bill, especially for the right to build on land that lacks infrastructure and may need to be insured against the risk of toxic contamination, despite promises by the federal government to clean it.

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City officials, however, say much of the park will pay for itself, including an area for privately built golf courses, a satellite campus that Cal State Fullerton plans to expand, a veterans cemetery and a museum.

“We would not have put together a financial plan that was betting on some vote,” said City Manager Allison Hart. “The park will proceed exactly as it was proposed.”

Many in the public are keen to see that financial plan.

“There is no way to critique their plan because they haven’t told anyone what they are doing,” said Richard Gollis, chair of the Orange County chapter of the Urban Land Institute. Agran assures that those details will all come soon. “This is a complex land transaction,” he said.

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That’s not a good enough answer for Shea. “Everything is being done in private, and I don’t think that is fair,” she said. “We’ve got a whole lot of shadow games and shell games and nobody knows what is going on.”

One element of the park financing plan that city officials have disclosed is that developer fees will get Irvine only the most bare-bones of parks.

It will take other money to buy the “jewelry,” they say, which could be anything from stone walls to ponds.

Where that money will come from following the defeat of Proposition 51 is unknown. The Great Park was one of dozens of projects across the state that would have been bumped to the front of the line for state funding if the measure had passed.

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Critics warned that the measure would steer funds away from education, health care and other areas to fund “luxury” projects such as Irvine’s park. And state lawmakers accused the measure’s drafters of “initiative pimping” by including millions of dollars for projects that would benefit developers in exchange for hefty campaign contributions.

Agran touted Proposition 51 as a chance to return Orange County its fair share of funding. He says he intends to be at El Toro with a jackhammer by late next year to help tear the runways up. He promises that the entire park will be built within 10 years.

“I’ve grown used to all the doomsayers and doubters and defeatists and professional pessimists,” he said. “They say it can’t be done. To them, I say, ‘nuts.’ ”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Proposition 51 tally

No Orange County community had a majority voting in favor of the statewide public-works measure. Following are the percentage of “yes” votes cast in each community for Prop. 51.

Santa Ana -- 36.5

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Midway City -- 36.3

Irvine -- 36.2

Laguna Beach -- 34.5

Stanton -- 33.8

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Aliso Viejo -- 33.5

San Juan Capistrano -- 32.9

Westminster -- 32.4

La Palma -- 32.0

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Laguna Niguel -- 31.7

Garden Grove -- 31.6

Buena Park -- 31.5

Rancho Santa Margarita -- 31.3

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Anaheim -- 31.2

Tustin -- 30.9

Cypress -- 30.4

Laguna Hills -- 30.0

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Seal Beach -- 29.7

Dana Point -- 29.5

Lake Forest -- 29.5

Costa Mesa -- 29.0

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La Habra -- 29.0

Laguna Woods -- 29.0

Los Alamitos -- 29.0

Placentia -- 28.8

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Orange -- 28.7

Fullerton -- 28.1

Huntington Beach -- 27.6

Mission Viejo -- 27.6

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San Clemente -- 27.5

Brea -- 27.2

Fountain Valley -- 27.0

Rossmoor -- 26.0

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Newport Beach -- 25.6

Yorba Linda -- 25.3

Villa Park -- 23.0

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Source: Orange County Registrar of Voters

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Researched by Times staff writer Ray F. Herndon


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