In the latest effort to move forward on a massive park planned for the former El Toro Marine base in Orange County, the city of Irvine has struck a new deal with the developer that is supposed to build thousands of homes around the parkland.
In a 3-2 vote late Tuesday, the City Council approved substantial changes to its 2005 agreement with Lennar Corp., which bought the base from the Navy with the intention of building dozens of neighborhoods around 1,347 acres of city-owned land christened the Orange County Great Park.
Under the new agreement, Lennar will transfer 131 additional acres to Irvine and pay the city $58 million for infrastructure and park maintenance. In exchange, the housing giant would be relieved of some of its obligations to the city, including building a 45-hole golf course and leaving 173 acres of the base as farmland.
The deal also opens public land to limited development: It allows the city to build a police station, hotels, restaurants and retail space on portions of the nearly 1,500-acre expanse envisioned as parkland -- a space that is nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park and that designers liken to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and Balboa Park in San Diego.
Quest for parkland
City leaders who supported the revised agreement say the infusion of cash will allow them to get a jump on turning hundreds of acres into parkland, an endeavor that has floundered because of the collapse of the housing market.
Critics of the deal, however, say the city is already entitled to that money to fund infrastructure -- up to $201 million -- under the previous accord with the builder.
The ambitious Great Park relies on tax money expected from housing and commercial developments that were to be built surrounding the project, but those plans have been at a standstill. Councilman Larry Agran, who is also chairman of the city's Orange County Great Park Corp., said the agreement would allow workers to start on the park by demolishing the old base runways by this fall.
"This is a truly remarkable milestone, especially against the backdrop of an economic environment where almost no major projects other than traditional infrastructure are moving forward," Agran said.
But those voting against the changes, including Councilwoman Christina Shea, expressed concern that they would lead to higher density and more development in and around the park and that they granted too many concessions to the struggling housing giant.
"This is just a bailout for Lennar, and it's a sellout to Irvine residents," Shea said.
Agran said that the agreement does not rule out more intense development on parcels of land Lennar was previously obligated to use for golf or agriculture, but that such development would have to be requested by the builder.
Lennar said the company would benefit by having more land to build on, by developing infrastructure it will share with the city such as roads and sewers, and by making progress toward a park that will make its property more desirable when homes eventually are built.
"It's an agreement that will allow us to move forward and deliver on what we promised," Emile Haddad, president and chief executive of Five Point Communities, a firm that manages the land at the base for Lennar and other investors, told the council.
In a separate, 4-1 vote, with Shea dissenting, the Irvine council also approved 1,269 additional housing units, entitling Lennar to build up to 4,894 units on land surrounding the park. Shea also criticized the clause that would allow the city to build hotels and other businesses on public land, saying that it is not the city's business to be in competition with the private sector.
Agran said any commercial development within the park would be limited and sensible.
"Our intention from the start has been to build a great metropolitan park," he said. "But we want to have some latitude to bring commercial enterprises and public accommodations to the park," such as a sports lodge to house athletes visiting the park's fields.
Irvine has been under scrutiny in recent years as it has spent more than $100 million on the Great Park with little to show for it other than plans on a drawing board and a tethered-balloon ride surrounded by a small "preview park." The entire park is estimated to cost at least $1.4 billion in public funds.
The project's most ardent boosters, including Agran, have urged patience, saying that with innovative financing, the park can be built even as the economy sputters.
But the project's critics see the new agreement as a step toward a Great Park that looks a lot more like a giant housing development and less like a park. "They've burned through over $100 million and we've got a balloon and a patch of grass and a design in a drawer," said Greg Smith, a city planning commissioner appointed by Shea. "We've had dozens of free concerts. The only thing we don't have is a park."
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Great Park deal
The key provisions of the new agreement:
* Lennar Corp. will pay Irvine $58 million over the next five years: $40 million to build shared infrastructure and demolish and recycle old runways and $18 million for maintenance and operations at the Great Park. Responsibility for cost overruns would shift from the city to the developer.
* Lennar will transfer 131 acres to the city to be incorporated into the park.
* 173 acres of Lennar's land that the city required to be set aside for agriculture will be opened up to development.
* The city will be allowed to build hotels, restaurants, small-scale retail spaces, a police headquarters building and educational institutions on public parkland.
* The developer will pay the city $9 million over nine years in exchange for removal of its obligation to build a 45-hole golf course.
Source: Los Angeles Times reporting