Not-so-great park

Ten years after Orange County residents voted to turn a shuttered military base into one of America's most ambitious municipal parks, most of the land remains fenced off, looking very much like the airfield the Marines left behind.

The city of Irvine has spent at least $203 million on the project, but only 200 acres of the promised 1,347-acre Orange County Great Park has been built, and half of that is leased out for commercial farming.

Most of the money has paid for plans, designs, administrative costs and consultants, with less than a fifth of it going toward actual park construction, according to a Times analysis of the spending.

Now, the money to build "the first great metropolitan park of the 21st century" -- as the city calls it -- has just about run out, leaving Irvine leaders to contemplate radical measures: Selling off public land to raise funds or asking private business to step in and build the park for them.

The park, by now, was supposed to be filled with scores of sports fields and eventually museums, cultural centers, botanical gardens, and maybe even a university -- all tucked into a bucolic landscape of forests, lawns, a lake and 60-foot-deep canyon that would be scooped from the earth once the barracks and runways were demolished.

But there are no baseball diamonds or regulation soccer fields. No canyon, no forest, no sprawling museum complex.

As much as anything, the lofty plans for the park -- an expanse intended to rival San Diego's Balboa Park or even Central Park in New York -- collapsed under the weight of the sagging economy.

When the housing market started to dive, developer FivePoint Communities Inc. halted its plans for building the thousands of homes that were supposed to surround the park and generate tax money to fuel its growth.

The most crippling blow landed last spring when the state -- in an effort to trim California's ballooning deficit -- grabbed the project's main funding source: $1.4 billion in property tax funds.

The Great Park that exists today doesn't look anything like the colorful city brochures that landed in mailboxes years ago, promising to go "From Groundbreaking to Great Park in only 5 years."

Still, visitors pour into the lone corner of the base that has been developed with a tethered balloon that shuttles them 400 feet in the air, an arts complex dotted with palms, a carousel and a lawn popular with soccer players.

The city's final chunk of construction money will be spent by next year, when officials expect to finish a 30-acre complex of soccer fields, basketball courts, gardens, ponds and a permanent visitors center.

But most of the features that would transform the World War II-era base into a major destination exist only on paper. Most of the acreage remains undeveloped, largely off-limits to the public. Virtually all of the runways are intact, leased out to raise money.

Officials now say the Great Park will take decades or even generations to finish.

Critics, who have long questioned the project's fiscal discipline, doubt Orange County will ever get the park that was promised.

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Born in better times

The idea for a Great Park was born during brighter economic times.

Voters in 2002 agreed to turn the raw landscape of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into America's next great municipal park rather than an international airport as county supervisors wanted.

The military sold the land for $650 million to Lennar Corp., then one of the nation's largest home builders. As part of the deal, Lennar paid $200 million in development fees to Irvine and in 2005 transferred 1,347 acres to the city in exchange for the rights to surround it with thousands of homes and businesses.

Once in the city's hands, the money went quickly.

In all, $90 million was poured into planning and designing the park but just $38 million was used for actual construction, a Times analysis shows. Some $29 million went for administrative costs and $28 million toward operations. An additional $16 million paid for publicity and free events -- concerts, pumpkin harvests and anniversary celebrations. Nearly half the money paid to contractors was awarded without competitive bids.

In its analysis, The Times studied more than 10 years of Great Park financial records, obtained under the California Public Records Acts. The data included hundreds of contracts and tens of thousands of expenditures through April of this year.

Irvine officials did not dispute the results but said they classify Great Park spending differently. Design and construction costs, for instance, should be grouped together, they said.

One of the largest expenditures went to New York-based landscape architect Ken Smith, who won an international competition to design the Great Park.

The landscape designers, planners, architects, engineers and public relations consultants that Smith selected, some paid as much as $250 an hour, cost more than $47 million, records show.

Communications and strategy firm Forde and Mollrich for years was paid an annual $1.2-million retainer fee for public relations work, an amount that was cut in half last summer. Two balloon pilots and a hostess have for years been paid $380,000 a year to operate the park's signature attraction. A six-piece band was paid $2,300 to play for the ride's 2007 unveiling. Roughly $18,650 was spent trucking in more than 100 tons of snow for a 2010 "snow day" event, plus $5,000 for gloves.

Some city leaders said the spending on plans, public relations and events was necessary to secure a world-class design, build support for the project and entice visitors.

"We had to invest a lot to let people know there's a park coming," Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang said.

Others, including Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, have called the spending on plans and no-bid contracts reckless and suggested the money could have been put to better use by building ball fields and opening up more parkland.

Lalloway said he was "saddened by a potentially wonderful project that has been financially mismanaged."

He doubts whether some of master design's showpiece amenities, such as the 2.5-mile-long canyon that was to be created in the middle of the park, will ever be built.

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Sell some land?

The project's fiscal decay has left some to consider a smaller, scaled-back park or one that will be built with the help of private business.

The Anaheim Ducks, for instance, are in talks with the city to build ice skat- ing facilities there. Another firm could build a concert venue to replace the nearby Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.

Others, including Larry Agran -- a 26-year veteran of the Irvine council and a park booster -- say Irvine could raise money by selling off parkland for up to $4 million an acre, perhaps for a hotel, resort or high school.

"We own close to 1,500 acres of land free and clear and we can develop it in any way we see fit," Agran said.

Agran predicts the Great Park could be completed in 15 to 20 years, if the city can get its hands on more money.

In the near term, Irvine's best hope for expanding the park could lie in a deal being negotiated with housing developer FivePoint Communities Inc.

The developer has offered to build $171 million in park facilities over the next five years, including dozens of soccer fields, tennis courts and baseball diamonds, a forested area and a lake. In exchange, the city would transfer some 40 acres to FivePoint and allow the developer to more than double the number of homes around the park.

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Small but popular

Though it falls far short of what was promised, the sliver of parkland that exists is a popular destination, city records show.

Attendance has climbed from 42,000 visitors in 2007 when the balloon ride opened to 600,000 last year, when visitors poured in to attend hundreds of events, including sports clinics, concerts, farmers markets, festivals and circus acts.

Still, most of the property remains behind fences and off-limits to the public.

The runways are leased out for auto testing, television commercials, RV storage and cycling races. A refurbished hangar is rented out for weddings and high school proms.

Another stretch is home to an industrial-sized composting operation. A sign posted at a fruit tree orchard called "The Giving Grove," which donates produce to local food banks, warns visitors to keep out.

A wildlife corridor is supposed to one day snake through the property. But for now, coyotes, bobcats and other creatures roam the base's runways and weedy fields anyway.

Some visitors want more.

Wai-Kin Soo and his wife, Rachel Soo, are regular visitors, taking their twin toddler boys to ride the carousel and play on the grass. They've attended art gallery shows and free outdoor concerts and bring out-of- town relatives to take in the view from the big balloon.

"I wish more was developed," said Wai-Kin, a landscape architect who admires the park's design.

"But it just got hammered by the perfect storm. For what it is, I think they're doing their best."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

Times staff writers Elizabeth Frank, Jeff Gottlieb and Doug Smith contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 30, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction Great Park: A photo caption with an article in the Oct. 27 Section A about development of the Orange County Great Park referred to the park's balloon attraction as a hot-air balloon. The balloon is filled with helium.
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