For more than four months Irvine’s balloon ride, the lone attraction at the fledgling Orange County Great Park, sat grounded and criticism grew that the project was neither great nor a park.
The ride will rise skyward again Saturday, a year after it opened, now with a small ring of green space around it. Irvine officials say the $14-million “preview park” around the balloon, 17 acres of which are opening Saturday, is proof they are making headway in turning the old El Toro Marine base into one of the nation’s largest municipal parks.
Thousands are expected to turn out for the “Festival of Flight” celebration, planned to coincide with the third anniversary of the city’s acquisition of 1,347 acres of the base. The event will feature kite demonstrations, birds of prey on display and a vintage military aircraft flyover.
The balloon ride was closed in February while the Federal Aviation Administration and a city-paid aviation expert investigated a former pilot’s allegations of unsafe flying practices. Both cleared the ride.
Workers have spent the last three months planting five acres of grass and shade trees and erecting picnic tables on platforms resembling lily pads. A timeline of 1940s history is painted on an old runway lined with solar-powered flashing lights for a nighttime effect, as a reminder of the base’s military heyday.
Park designers say they aim to offer guests a taste of more to come.
“We’re testing things out to get feedback from the public before we build big-time,” head landscape designer Ken Smith said.
The starter park also will be a place for designers to tinker with ideas to be used later on a grander scale. On Saturday, design staff will be on hand wearing vests and carrying clipboards to take down visitors’ comments.
The park’s overall plan, which designers acknowledge is decades from completion, calls for a dramatic landscape of lakes, orchards, athletic fields, museums and a man-made canyon to unfold in the heart of suburban Orange County.
Irvine, which oversees the $1.1-billion project, recently has faced heavy scrutiny for spending more than $50 million over the last six years with little more than the balloon ride to show for it.
Building the park has proceeded slowly because of the housing market crunch, which has delayed plans by developer Lennar Corp. to build homes and businesses around the future parkland. The city relies on tax money from that development to build the park.
For the time being, park designers and Lennar have settled on a scaled-back plan focusing on the western end of the base.
Officials said that they were not hampered by the housing market and that spending money on a top-notch design would benefit the project in the long term. They said their hope was that people will start to see the park as a go-to place.
The balloon, free to ride, will be open for expanded hours, including sunset and night flights, and the lawn will be available during daylight hours for sports and picnics. Starting next month, the city will host a series of outdoor concerts and dance parties around an old hangar.
“It’s hard to move people’s imaginations from a military base to a park with one fell swoop,” said Irvine Mayor Beth Krom, surveying the landscape from the metal basket of the balloon during a preview flight Wednesday. “We want people’s imaginations to grow as we build this park.”
On Saturday, Lennar will hold a promotional party inside a refurbished hangar to try to persuade the public that it has not abandoned its plan to build thousands of homes and millions of square feet of commercial, industrial and office space.
“There are so many rumors and innuendoes about us not doing anything, we wanted to show that we’re making progress,” said Tom Martin, a vice president with the company.
The development, recently renamed Great Park Neighborhoods, are still several years away, but workers are to begin preparing sites this fall, Martin said.
The company sent mailers invitations to every household in Irvine to visit the hangar, where the company has built mock-ups of Main Street USA-like storefronts lined with benches and streetlights.
Trees uprooted from other parts of the base were temporarily encased in boxes and planted outside the hangar. A brick-paved plaza was assembled on top of 14-inch-thick concrete alongside the structure.
Though it will likely be decades until the entire park and surrounding development takes shape, Smith, the landscape designer, said that in the next two years the park will begin to expand from the balloon area.
Up next: a community farm and demonstration garden, a cafe, a palm-tree-lined courtyard and a visitors center called “the pod.” After that, the beginnings of a sports complex, which will eventually include 20 soccer fields.