IRVINE — Orange County will have its Great Park — or at least the small segment of it that officials were able to budget for — by spring 2011, board directors said this week.
The North Lawn is the first part of the first phase of the Western Sector Park Development plan. The 19.5 acres will include walking and biking paths, a turf lawn, a parking lot and a multipurpose recreational field that could support up to three temporary soccer fields.
While the official start of construction was Thursday, crews have been grading the area for three weeks, carefully avoiding underground power lines and protecting existing trees, according to a presentation at the Orange Country Great Park Corp. board of directors' meeting last week.
Once the North Lawn is completed, crews will begin work on the South Lawn, which will feature three permanent, lighted soccer fields to be completed by 2012, and then the rest of the Western Sector with possibilities of a wildlife corridor and an agricultural district, for a price tag of about $70 million.
"I can envision soccer practices, youth practicing lacrosse and flying kites, and doing other activities that will bring a special energy here," Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang said as tractors and construction crews briefly paused their work in the rocky dirt behind him. "It is the type of energy that defines the city of Irvine and will define the Great Park in the near future and the years to come."
The construction comes after years of setbacks in which officials have been heavily criticized for their lack of progress since the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station property came under city control in 2005.
"There are a lot of people who are heavily invested in our failure. They, after all, wanted an airport," said Councilman Larry Agran, referring to nearly 10-year struggle over what to do with the old base. "They didn't get an airport and now they're complaining. …We've been very clear that this is a long-term project — Central Park took 20 years to build, and San Diego's Balboa Park took 75 years to build."
On Thursday, officials cited rough economic times and a recently settled lawsuit between Lennar Corp. and Forest Lawn Mortuary for halting development.
The Western Sector project was designed to be able to proceed around those obstacles, said Mike Ellzey, the park's chief executive.
However, while the budget for the project exists, the funds for the rest of the Great Park have yet to be raised, he said.
"It was real clear to us that we do not have the [$]1.4 billion," Ellzey said of the most recent updated figure from the Great Park Design Studio. "What we did is we carved out 224 acres which represents a [$]70-million budget and that's what we're focusing on."
Eventually, the Great Park could include a canyon, a lake, multicultural center, aviation museum and other land-use designs as laid out by the Comprehensive Park Design, prepared by New York architect Ken Smith, and approved by the council in 2009.
But many of those possibilities will have to wait for funding, Ellzey said.
"All we're doing right now is carving out an expansion of this active space," Ellzey said of the other possibilities, which are not included in the Western Sector plan or budget. "We're going to have to find money from other sources to begin to carve into the remaining balance of the 1,347 acres but that will be done as money becomes available."
As much as $40 million may become available as housing communities ringing the Great Park are developed, Ellzey said.
The homes were delayed as a result of the lawsuit, but Ellzey said that the Aliso Viejo-based Five Point Communities, which manages the Great Park Neighborhoods project for Lennar Corp., may begin building in 2012.
Casting doubt on the reliability of that $40 million from Lennar, Councilwoman Christina Shea said the funds will go toward developing infrastructure, such as underground sewer pipes and telephone lines, around the housing communities with very little of that running through the Great Park.
It will be the city's responsibility to fund and develop infrastructure for properties within the Great Park, such as the permanent soccer fields, she said.
What she does agree with, however, is that the money for continued building after the Western Sector just isn't there.
Although the city may have had as much as $240 million combined from Lennar Corp. and other sources in 2005, according the Shea, that budget was last listed in the 2009-10 fiscal year update at about $22 million.
Shea had opposed the Western Sector Plan when it came before council last year, because the plans called for a far too passive use of the land.
"I wanted to build a lot more permanent structures," Shea said, which would "energize" the park.
"I had really wanted to build out that sports park — that's where your revenues come from," she said, but added that she now sees a positive element in Thursday's construction kick-off. "At least we're moving forward."
March 17, 1943: Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro is commissioned.
December 1993: The United States president and Congress approve the closure of MCAS El Toro.
Nov. 8, 1994: Measure A, which would transform El Toro into a commercial airport, passes with 51% of the vote.
March 5, 2002: Voters pass Measure W by 58%, ending plans for an airport at El Toro.
May 2002: The Department of the Navy, General Service Administration and the city of Irvine announce the Great Park Plan and discuss auctioning the land.
Feb. 16, 2005: The Navy auction of El Toro ends, with Miami-based Lennar Corp. buying the base for $649.5 million.
July 12, 2005: Lennar takes ownership and presents a check to the city of Irvine for $201 million toward developer fees for initial construction of the Great Park.
Oct. 26, 2006: The Great Park Board approves the Park's draft master plan.
Aug. 2, 2007: Great Park Master Plan approved.
Oct. 22, 2009: Western Sector Park Development Plan (Phase 1) is approved by the Irvine City Council.
Sept. 30, 2010: Construction begins on North Lawn. The same day, the board of directors meets to discuss the Palm Court Project and approved the appropriation of $250,000 for design study for a wildlife corridor.
To see a map of the Western Sector Park Development Plan, go to this story on www.dailypilot.com.