Irvine City Council delays decision on Great Park plan

A child plays in Orange County's Great Park, with the park's balloon in the background. Irvine leaders will consider whether to issue subpoenas to help auditors continue their investigation into the financial management of the park.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Following a meeting that stretched past midnight, the Irvine City Council voted Wednesday to delay for two weeks a decision on whether to allow a developer to build 688 acres of the Orange County Great Park in exchange for the right to construct thousands of additional homes around the site’s perimeter.

“It is clear from staff’s presentation tonight that they have conducted just a partial analysis of the impacts of this offer and more work is required,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway.

The vote to delay came after an hours-long discussion that included detailed presentations from the developer and city staff followed by dozens of members of the public who took turns expressing views on both sides of the debate.

Many urged the council to take more time to consider the proposal. Others said the city had waited long enough.


“No more reviews, no more studying and no more political posturing. Let’s build the Great Park,” said Dick Owens, a 27-year resident of the city.

A little after 1 a.m., with a few dozen observers still in the audience, the council voted 3 to 2 to delay the vote. Lalloway and council members Beth Krom and Larry Agran voted in favor of the delay. Mayor Steven Choi and council member Christina Shea voted no.

“It’s time to build this park. We promised we were going to build this park,” Shea said. “We can find every excuse in the world for why we’re not going to build this park, and I’m not going to do it anymore.”

Lalloway said he “enthusiastically supports” the developer’s proposal but that details of the plan still need to be hashed out. He noted that he has questions about design features, construction progress and the park’s operations and maintenance.


“My job is to make sure that this project is done right. We must uphold the high standards that all of us have become accustomed to living in this world-class master-planned community,” Lalloway said.

Years of spending and setbacks have left the city with few options for building the 1,300-acre park, which was pitched to county voters in 2002 as America’s next great municipal park, a place that would rival Balboa Park in San Diego and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Developer FivePoint Communities, which is now building 4,900 homes around the perimeter, proposed to jump-start the stalled project by constructing 688 acres of parkland, which would include a 188-acre golf course and a 176-acre sports park among other features. In exchange, the firm would nearly double the number of homes surrounding the park to 9,500.

Emile Haddad, president and chief executive of FivePoint, said the plan would give the community the park it has been waiting for at a time when the city simply doesn’t have the money to do so on its own.


On Tuesday, Haddad told the council: “We’re ready to go,” adding, “We feel like this process has been exhausted.”

But critics, including the park’s original designer, Ken Smith, have said FivePoint’s proposal abandons the city’s vision of a grand public park in favor of a quick and inexpensive solution.

“I voted for a great park and FivePoint’s plan is not a great park,” said Gail Lewis, a 35-year resident of Irvine. “I see this as a commercialized private sports complex.”

Michael Schwartz, a resident of Lake Forest, told the council about visiting the park recently.


“When I looked around, all I saw was rubble, just dirt and nothing but broken promises,” he said. Still, he added, he couldn’t support the developer’s proposal.

“We have plenty of housing, plenty of golf courses,” he said.

Smith, who was selected in 2006 as the park’s designer in an international competition, has been sharply critical of the proposed 188-acre golf course, which would replace the deep, winding canyon that he envisioned as the soul of the massive park and a place for guests to “wander and daydream.” He warned that the proposal was a far cry from the ambitious green space he spent years designing.

The Great Park has been in the works for about a decade, ever since county voters approved it in place of constructing an international airport at the closed Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.


In 2005, the military sold the land in an online auction to Lennar Corp., which struck a deal with Irvine to transfer about 1,300 acres to the city in exchange for the rights to build thousands of homes around the proposed park. The home builder also paid the city $200 million in fees to begin building the park.

The city has spent much of the money but has built only about 230 acres. According to a Times analysis late last year, designers, planners, architects, engineers and public relations consultants selected by Smith cost the city more than $47 million.

The crash in the real estate market slowed the arrival of the homes, and then the state’s decision to eliminate local redevelopment agencies -- the financial engine that was supposed to generate tax funds to continue construction of the park -- dealt a crushing blow to the city’s plans.

Meanwhile, FivePoint, a Lennar spinoff, moved forward with plans to build homes around the Great Park’s perimeter, so it has a seller’s interest in making sure that construction of the park does not stall much longer.


FivePoint’s proposal would cost the company an estimated $172 million, $40 million of which would be reimbursed by a special tax on Great Park homes. In addition to a golf course and sports park, FivePoint has said it will build a 178-acre wildlife corridor, 72 acres of agricultural land and 75 acres of woodland and a small upper canyon.

The developer also offered to spend $19.5 million to study building an amphitheater and museums, spruce up undeveloped parts of the park and provide for additional costs.


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