Soaring vision or just hot air?

It’s a hot, windless summer day. Ken Smith is standing in the giant, orange, tethered helium balloon that has become a symbol of everything good and bad about Orange County’s planned Great Park. The sky is blue and from 400 feet up one can see the endless sprawl of homes, the ocean and rolling hills that define this suburban county.

Through round, black sunglasses, Smith looks down at 1,300 acres of a closed Marine air base; 1,300 acres of possibility.

If all goes according to plan, Smith will transform the concrete runways and abandoned hangars beneath him into a park that some say could stand up against New York’s Central Park as one of the nation’s great urban parks. It could redefine what’s possible in building parks -- leading the charge in transforming abandoned land. It could give a center to this nebulous county.


Smith spent a career preparing for a project like this, though he didn’t believe he would ever get to take it on. Yet here he is -- surveying the land from the floating navel orange that he envisioned beckoning visitors like a roadside attraction. He is the unexpected winner of a worldwide competition, and has been given the project of a lifetime. If all goes according to plan.

But the ambition of the Great Park is strained by politics and money. In the last months, plans have drastically changed. Naysayers are louder than ever. Money that has been promised is nowhere in sight and the public is growing increasingly skeptical. Yet here he is. An Iowa farm boy turned New York landscape designer -- watching, waiting and planning.


The international competition Smith won to design the Great Park was something of a publicity stunt to build support for the park.

The park was born of a nasty, nearly decade-long political battle over the future of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. A divided Board of Supervisors wanted to build an airport there, but south Orange County cities fought the idea. Irvine proposed a park, an idea embraced by county voters in 2002. City leaders made a deal with a developer to build surrounding housing and businesses to fund the park.

A letter inviting Smith, 56, to participate in the design competition landed on his desk in 2005.

“I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s a really big park. I don’t have a chance at that,’ ” he says. Up to then, the largest park Smith had worked on was a 13-acre project in Santa Fe, N.M.

Irvine officials took all-expense-paid trips to meet finalists. In Europe, they toured sprawling parks built by a well-known Spanish firm. In Northern California they saw well-used parks designed by a California firm.

In New York, they met Smith, who had put together a team of well-regarded architects and artists to make up for his inexperience and distance from California.

Smith had been to Orange County once in the early 1990s. “The first time I came through, there was still orange trees here,” he says. “It was kind of shocking to see how quickly it had changed.”

The design Smith’s team submitted was more ambitious and innovative than others.

“There was a creative, even whimsical aspect to what Ken was doing,” says Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine and chairman of the Great Park Corp. Details such as an artificial canyon, nods to county history and small touches such as the balloon “suggested a design genius,” he says.

Smith has a broad smile and a giddy laugh. Christina Shea, the Irvine city councilwoman who opposed hiring him because of his lack of experience, has said he’s the type of man she would have over for dinner. It’s easy to tell when he’s excited about an idea because the smile appears and his eyes get wide. “Isn’t that cool?” he says.

He was raised on a farm in Waukee, Iowa. “My high school counselor had a very limited view of the world,” he says. “In his view, boys became engineers” and girls became homemakers.

He tried engineering for a quarter in college then switched to landscape architecture, combining a growing passion for the environment with enthusiasm for art.

Where Orange County is all beaches and sun, Smith’s outward appearance is almost a caricature of the New York intelligentsia. Even on the hottest days, he sticks to his black, long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, black shoes and black-rimmed glasses.

Where Orange County’s master-planned communities are strait-laced and orderly, Smith takes pleasure in irony. And although the Great Park was envisioned as one of the country’s largest public works projects, Smith was known mostly for clever art installations such as transforming a hotel room into a contemporary Eden of fake flowers.


In the afternoon heat, Smith is standing on a pale slab of concrete where two runways meet.

“I’m always kind of blown away by how beautiful this place is,” he says.

To the northeast is the urban sprawl of the county’s older cities. To the southwest are the newer master-planned ones. The ground is the detritus of the last century’s wars; endless concrete, abandoned hangars, tumbleweeds and dirt.

“It is kind of an accident of history that all this land, in the center of a major metropolitan county, would have gone undeveloped for all this time,” Agran says.

Great Park backers hope their park will be compared to Central Park, Golden Gate Park and Balboa Park. But although those parks were monumental undertakings, as Smith points out, they were built on somewhat untouched land.

Modern designers are forced to build parks on abandoned sites -- old rail yards, bases and on the sites of razed buildings. Such work is challenging, Smith says, but it also opens new possibilities.

“Go out and stand on one of these old runway corridors and have a two-mile view,” he says, smiling. “You get that kind of openness on the beach and you get that kind of openness if you go hiking. But those are really natural areas. And this is a different kind of animal. This is urban space.”

In 2006, Smith’s team set up shop in an empty building on the base and set to work dreaming up the details of their park.

“When you looked out the windows, you could see the coyotes going up and down the runways,” he says. “And if you had any questions at all about the site you could just go out and look at it.”

Smith’s imagined park told a story about a better way to live -- a wilderness corridor that would provide a throughway for native species, a series of farms and gardens that would reconnect people to their food, and a complex of museums that would create space for culture.

In keeping with Smith’s vision, sustainability and playfulness were key. Systems to recycle water and reuse runways were developed. A series of details -- such as the word “great” in giant letters to mimic the Hollywood sign -- would bring a lighter touch.

Over three years, the team revised the project again and again.

And even as the housing bubble was collapsing, indefinitely stalling developments to fund the park, the design team seemingly had free rein to explore ideas.


Smith and his project manager, Michael Taylor, are standing near a compost pile that’s envisioned as a terrace linking museums and libraries.

A crew is preparing to move five elm trees to a stretch of lawn near the orange balloon, where visitors complain there’s not enough shade. Smith is telling Taylor to place the trees so they’re like “sculptural elements sitting on the lawn.”

“It’s really a kind of composition,” he says. “We don’t want them leaning all the same way. We want. . . .”

He leans his hands together like an imperfect pyramid.

“Kind of this?” Taylor asks, copying Smith.

“Yeah. So it feels like nature,” Smith says.

Being obsessed about details is a luxury born of two things: limited oversight and a massive delay in building caused by funding problems and management turmoil. The Great Park Corp. has gone through five chief executive officers in six years.

What the park offers for now is mostly a patch of lawn with portable bathrooms, the balloon and a small farm.

The bulk of the land is still unusable. Lennar Corp., the builder whose developments were supposed to fund the park, hasn’t built anything. In August, Irvine revised agreements with Lennar that would introduce more than 1,000 additional housing units around the park and allow the city to build a police station, hotel, restaurants and retail stores within the park, some of which would help generate money.

While they wait, Smith and the Great Park Design Studio have been preparing an ever-more ambitious park whose price tag has swelled to nearly $1.4 billion. So far, the design studio has been paid $10 million for its work, with an additional nearly $26 million yet to be paid. That’s caused many to question whether the team has had proper oversight.

The studio has spent hundreds of thousands on media and community relations to promote its vision. A recently released outside audit reported lax oversight, possible overbilling and incomplete documentation.

“I like Ken,” says Shea, the city councilwoman and a Great Park Corp. board member who has been critical of the park’s finances. “But he’s been given kind of an open-ended, design whatever you want mandate. It creates these overruns and an excessive amount of costs.”


When he started, Smith imagined he would dedicate five years to the Great Park. Now he can’t say how long it will take.

He divides his time between Manhattan and Orange County. About two weeks a month, he lives in a rented apartment at the Irvine Spectrum. His weekends here are spent trolling galleries in Los Angeles. It has taken him nearly four years to be comfortable on the freeways.

His wife stays in New York, where Smith is concurrently working on other projects. He has become a prominent designer there.

Despite setbacks, he describes his relationship with Great Park officials and contractors positively. He doesn’t entertain the possibility that the park won’t be built.

“We clearly don’t have all the money we need,” he says. “But we have some.”

In April, park leaders allocated $61 million for a 500-acre development plan that would include a long-awaited sports park but would only begin creating a framework on most of those acres. After that, park officials will need more money.

Smith is savvy enough to know his biggest challenge is persuading the public that his project is worth building. But the missteps in management and appearance of excess have left many wary.

Now, Smith hopes to persuade park leaders to build in bits and pieces, enough so people visit and demand more.

He tells a story about a consultant who was having trouble building a park along the Hudson River in New York City. “It was just kind of a wreck of a space. Not very big. The city and the state could never really come up with the money to turn it into a park.”

Then, the head of the park-building agency put in temporary jogging, skating and bike trails. “He said . . . once he had a constituency, the park would get built. And he was right.”

Similarly, Smith pushed for the helium balloon even as the bulk of the base remained unusable. For critics, the balloon is a symbol of hyperbolic promise gone unmet. For supporters, it is the vision of possibility.

When Smith descends from the orange balloon on this summer day, the crowd visiting the park is sparse. The sun is bright. Smith’s eyes are obscured by his black sunglasses -- it’s impossible to know what he sees. A couple sit on a wooden bench he carefully designed, a family sits at nearby picnic tables and a small group waits in line for the balloon. It is faded almost to white in parts by the sun.