Monday, July 11, 2011 | A vintage biplane whirled through the sky above Irvine's Great Park, leaving a bright orange trail. Down below, 15-month-old Gracie Mae Buser stared up in awe.
"She loves planes," said her father, Dan Buser.
The Busers were among thousands who turned out Saturday to celebrate the opening of the 19.5-acre North Lawn and the Palm Court Arts Complex, two tangible accomplishments that park leaders can point to after years of delays and diminished expectations.
"In 20 years I'm going to look back and remember when it [the park] was nothing," Buser said.
Apart from the additions, which include youth sports fields, a bike trail and artists' studios, Saturday also marked the six-year anniversary of the 1,347-acre park.
Standing beside rows of Canary Island date palm trees, Great Park Deputy CEO Cliff Wallace said the new plaza and open space are big steps in the right direction for the park. "Our goal is to keep that momentum going," Wallace said.
The new areas are part of the Western Sector Development Plan, which will eventually expand the park by more than 200 acres. More developments under the plan, including three full-sized, lighted soccer fields, are scheduled to open next spring.
Crowds poured into the park through the palm court entrance, greeted by a juggling unicyclist, costumed stilt walkers and a series of stage shows.
The event took on fair-like proportions. Children chased ducks in a petting zoo, flew kites on the grass, and watched a disc-catching dog perform. Families on a terraced lawn cheered the fireworks show at the end of the event.
Lindsay Marshall, who a year ago moved to Rancho Santa Margarita with his family, said parkland is almost nonexistent in Philadelphia, his previous home. "This is as nice a festival as you'll ever see," Marshall said. "Very well organized, not rinky-dinky."
Events like Saturday's are becoming more common at the park. Having attractions at the park, such as a summer concert series, before major construction is finished was an early decision, said Larry Agran, who is both an Irvine city councilman and Great Park director.
Agran estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million people visit the park annually. Yet nearly a decade ago when he and other city leaders persuaded the community to transform the El Toro Marine Air Base into a park rather than an airport, they promised there would be much more to the park by now.
Much of the development at the park has been contingent upon construction of nearby housing, part of a redevelopment plan that was to use new property tax revenue to build the park. The recession put a crimp in those plans, and the state's elimination of redevelopment agencies has put at least some of the funding in doubt.
Beyond the slow development progress, Agran and other park leaders have been criticized for authorizing millions of dollars in no-bid contracts, such as a $100,000-per-month contract with Forde and Mollrich, the park's public relations consultant.
Milling about in a yet-to-be occupied artists' studio, Agran indicated that the opening of the palm court and North Lawn should mark a new chapter for the park.
"The doubters, defeatists and professional pessimists — they need to give it a rest," Agran said.
Other visitors expressed patience with the park's slow-paced development and the park's leadership.
Steve Petrilla watched the kite flyers and the sun setting behind the park's iconic, orange helium balloon. Developing the park would take a long time, the 71-year-old observed.
"It will get there," Petrilla said. "It doesn't happen overnight. These things take time."