Officials in Orange County on Monday selected a prominent New York landscape architect to design what will be one of the nation's largest urban parks, carved from runways of the closed El Toro Marine base.
Selected as master planner for the $401-million project was Ken Smith, 52, who is best known for designing smaller parks in New York City and a new rooftop at the Museum of Modern Art. As part of his vision for the new park, he will create a lush canyon that plunges 70 feet deep and stretches more than two miles across a terrain he now describes as "flat, featureless and uncomfortable."
"This is the project of a lifetime," Smith said. "When I was a student, this is the kind of project I could only dream I'd be working on. It's not just a project. It's a labor of love."
At the park's center, the planned canyon will widen to accommodate a lake, a lodge, hot-air balloons, an air museum and an amphitheater. Slabs of cracked concrete and abandoned buildings will be transformed into an oasis of woodlands and wetlands.
The park will be built without a tax increase, officials say, and rely instead on fees and taxes collected from surrounding development. The park will be at the center of a 3,700-acre development by home-building giant Lennar Corp.
Lennar paid the U.S. Navy $649.5 million last summer for the base and then transferred land for the park to Irvine. Parts of the park, including sports fields, are expected to open by 2008, with the first buildings ready by 2012. Officials say the park may take decades to complete.
Boosters hope it will offer an outdoor experience beyond the county's many wilderness parks, golf courses and beaches. In an area sometimes derided for its soulless suburban sprawl, officials say they hope the park will be as prominent a landmark as Disneyland.
"It's a huge opportunity for Orange County to define itself for the world at large in a way that Central Park is for New York and Golden Gate Park is for San Francisco," said Mark Baldassare, research director for the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco and a former UC Irvine professor.
"Certainly something of this size and scope is going to change the landscape of Orange County and the way the county is viewed for generations. It's not just as a place for recreation but its significance for what Orange County of the 21st century is all about, in a way that Disneyland for many years symbolized the development of Orange County."
The Great Park Corp.'s board voted 7 to 1 to choose Smith and his design team. "This is an outstanding, captivating concept that's doable," said Larry Agran, an Irvine councilman and board chairman. Agran acknowledged the epic scope of the project and asked the public "to have faith in the process."
Park board member and Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea was unimpressed with Smith's track record and was the only dissenting vote. "The people shouldn't have to pay for the learning curve of a designer who has never built anything as large as this," she said.
At 1,300 acres, the Orange County Great Park will eclipse in size Manhattan's 843-acre Central Park and San Francisco's 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park. The new park will be dwarfed by Los Angeles' Griffith Park at 4,200 acres. But unlike other parks and large preserves that took advantage of forested lands and naturally hilly areas, this park will emerge from the heart of suburban Orange County, chiseled from the dreary, pancake-flat expanse of the old Marine base.
"It's going to be the largest public works project in the country for years," said UC Irvine lecturer Sarah Catz, who was consulted on the project. "It's an opportunity to leave a legacy that will inspire and educate and thrill generations. Can you think of many projects that can do that? You can't."
Peter Reed, a senior deputy director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, called Smith's work "avant-garde" and "cutting-edge."
"He's definitely into beauty. He's into irony. He's into meaning," Reed said. "The L.A. project would be very exciting."
He was referring to the Orange County Great Park, of course, but the New Yorker's slip reflects the geographic confusion park supporters hope to overcome.
"We're always 'L.A.-adjacent,' and I think having this park will help put us on the map," said Catz, the UC Irvine lecturer, who will teach a course on the park in the spring. Even as close as Los Angeles, she said, Orange County is perceived as "just a big blob of suburbia."
The former Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro was closed in 1999 but has been at the center of a rancorous debate about its potential as an international airport for Southern California. In 2002, Orange County voters rejected the airport plan.
When the park rises on the base's remains, it will erase one of the few remaining symbols of military might in Orange County, which flourished during and after World War II.
Its other major base, housing helicopters at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, also closed in 1999.
The first phase of the park will be built with developer fees and taxes collected from the planned homes and businesses. Though park details could change, the acreage will be ringed by 3,400 new homes and millions of square feet of office space; another 1,000 acres of land will remain in federal hands as wildlife habitat.
The park will connect the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park with Cleveland National Forest to the east. Park officials say that will make it the largest contiguous band of open space in any U.S. metropolitan area.
Smith's firm, Ken Smith Landscape Architect of New York City, is teaming with Mexican architect Enrique Norten, artist Mary Miss and Los Angeles landscape designer Mia Lehrer.
The group emerged as the favorite among 24 design teams from around the world competing to create the park. The two other finalists were a team led by Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey of Mill Valley in Northern California, and Barcelona-based EMBT Arquitectes, founded by the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles.
Officials said Monday that Smith's pay had not been set but expected it to be in the $8-million to $10-million range.
The park board that selected Smith for the job included the Irvine council and three members chosen from other cities.
Some were unimpressed with the process. George Hargreaves, a Harvard professor of landscape architecture who submitted a plan for the park and was rejected, said the choice should not have been relegated to local politicians.
"They left it to the amateurs," Hargreaves said. He worried the park would mirror the "false ecology" that characterizes many of Orange County's attempts at green space. "Stick a few palm trees in the ground and roll some grass out," he said.
Don Marquardt, a professor of landscape architecture at UCLA Extension, compared the planned transformation of the deteriorating El Toro base with what Frederick Law Olmsted did with Central Park.
He noted that the New York park was built on rocky swampland populated by stray goats and pigs.
"You take the worst site, that has no use, and turn it into a beautiful park," said Marquardt, who also does a one-man stage show as Olmsted. "That's exactly what happened with Central Park."
The Great Park reflects many changes underway in Orange County, said Joel Kotkin, author of "The New Suburbanism: A Realist's Guide to the American Future."
"Orange County is now wealthy enough to take 1,300 acres and give it the kind of care that in the early years of the county would have meant building a bunch of tract homes," he said.
"Orange County is all about redefining itself, from 30 years ago when it was white-bread suburbia with a few arty types in Laguna to being a very sophisticated, high-tech place that's ethnically diverse," he added. "It's becoming a very sophisticated place, and this park is part of the great experience in the evolution of suburbia.
"In many ways, Orange County is more cutting-edge for how people are going to live in the next 30 to 40 years than New York City."