What goes in O.C.'s Great Park?

Times Staff Writer

A cartoon hangs in the Orange County Great Park design studio in Irvine. Not for comic relief, but as a cautionary tale.

The black-and-white sketch from a 1918 issue of the New York Times shows a bird’s eye view of what Manhattan’s Central Park would look like if every proposed feature -- each museum, opera house, stadium and playground -- had been built. The drawing shows a complex of dominating buildings separated by slivers of open space.

Nearly a century later, and with more land at its disposal than Central Park’s 843 acres, the city of Irvine has received more than 60 proposals for what to include in the Great Park, through letters of interest and presentations before the park board.

Sifting through all the proposals gives an early glimpse of the challenges the city faces in deciding what exactly should occupy 1,347 acres of a former Marine base.

Some of the ideas come from special-interest clubs. Horse owners want equestrian trails. Anglers want a fly-casting pond. Skateboarders are petitioning for a skate park.


Others are pitches from entrepreneurs eagerly eyeing the opportunity to operate a water park, paint-ball arena or other business in the park.

“Everybody has good ideas on what should be in the park,” said Ken Smith, the New York landscape architect Irvine hired to design the park. “Vetting what is appropriate is the hardest thing.”

Over several months the Great Park’s design studio will evaluate 140 public suggestions and ideas its staff has developed. Each will be analyzed for its benefit to the public, cost and environmental sustainability, among other criteria. By the end of the year, the design studio and the Great Park board are expected to agree on the final mix.

The proposals have prompted a debate over how to satisfy the public’s wishes without creating a park that is less public, more developed and more commercial than residents had in mind.

Smith’s master design, unveiled last fall, features expanses of grass, trees, trails and a 2-mile-long, 60-foot-deep man-made canyon leading to a lake. It also includes sports fields and a cultural terrace, which would be home to a botanic garden, amphitheater and future museums and cultural centers.

Many of the ideas submitted would have to be built into the planned 175-acre sports park or 172 acres envisioned as a cultural terrace. Among those to be considered: an ice arena, a bonsai museum, a California fire museum, a California sports hall of fame, a foster care academy, a multicultural center and a West Coast branch of the National Archives. It is unclear exactly where the proposed giant chess board would fit in.

Smith said he values open spaces that encourage social interaction -- so much so that he plans to have several walls of the Irvine design studio knocked down to eliminate many of the offices where he and 65 engineers, architects and other contractors work.

Cautious of overdevelopment, he said would like to preserve that same sense of openness in the park design.

“There is a hunger for true public spaces that are different than the mall or Starbucks,” he said. “The worse case would be if the park got all carved up into little fiefdoms.”

Park officials have said they want the land to be as free and open to the public as possible, and in that spirit pledged to operate its first attraction, a helium passenger balloon, free of charge until 2008.

But over the next few months, the city will entertain proposals from businesses and nonprofit organizations, some of which plan to charge admission.

The proposals have already brought the City Council, which oversees the park, into a debate about just how public and affordable the park will be.

With so many proposals, the park could earn money from leasing some of the land -- an idea that is catching on with several elected officials.

Councilwoman Christina Shea this month urged the council to consider Camp James, a summer camp, and Wild Rivers Water Park, both set to close when their lease with the Irvine Co. expires next summer, as future tenants of the Great Park, saying they would be a natural fit.

Mike Riedel, president of the Wild Rivers, said he hoped to move from land near the 405 Freeway and Irvine Center Drive to the Great Park by summer 2009, and he has submitted a proposal to the city.

“Finding 20 to 25 acres in south Orange County is not as easy as one may think,” he said, summing up the opportunity that many businesses and nonprofit organizations see in the land.

If approved by the city, Wild Rivers would pay $30 million in construction costs and charge admission comparable to what it charges now: between $19 and $30 for a day.

Scott Durzo, who has brought about 120 kids from the sports camp he runs in Seal Beach to Wild Rivers water park every summer for 12 years, is afraid of losing that tradition.

Active features like a water park, he said, should be a priority for the Great Park because they provide kids a place to be active outdoors, and it matters little whether they are publicly or privately operated.

“If the city isn’t going to step up to the plate, I think private companies should have a crack at building something that has intrinsic value for the entire community,” he said.

Choosing park features also promises to prod an ongoing discussion for the City Council: how to pay for a park on which it has promised to spend no tax money.

Irvine earns about $2.7 million a year leasing land on the former base for RV storage, farming and recycling, but much of the money to design and build the park comes from $200 million the city received in a development agreement with Lennar Corp., which plans to build thousands of homes around the park.

To add to that pot, the City Council last month approved a complicated, four-step land deal that transferred 35 acres and $134 million among three city agencies that will generate additional tax revenue for the park.

But others, such as Councilman Steven Choi, doubt there will be enough money in the long term.

Choi would like to see the city pursue more revenue-producing public-private partnerships, which would earn the city money by leasing land to businesses that provide attractions to the park.

“We need to give these proposals fair, competitive consideration, looking out for the public’s accessibility and affordability if an amenity is privatized,” he said.

Great Park Board Chairman Larry Agran, however, cautioned against filling the park with money-making ventures, saying he was confident the park had a solid funding plan. He has promised that new taxes will not be needed to build, maintain or operate the park.

“This is a public, not-for-profit, great metropolitan park,” he said. “We’re not building a private, for-profit amusement park.”

Smith, the landscape architect, said that above all he wanted the park to be a respite from densely populated Orange County.

“I think people want to have a big open space,” he said.

“They want a view of the mountains. They want that sense of openness the county used to have.”