Irvine Heads Into Final Stretch on Great Park Deal

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The Irvine City Council Tuesday night voted unanimously to enter into final negotiations with a developer to build a large part of the Orange County Great Park, a key milestone in a project that has faced years of delay and controversy.

FivePoint Communities, the development manager of the neighborhoods surrounding the park, has offered to develop 688 acres of amenities in exchange for allowing construction of thousands more homes. The builder would spend $174 million, with $40 million reimbursed by the Mello-Roos property tax levied on homes.

Since voters approved the billion-dollar project in 2002, it has in many respects become a cautionary tale in the modern era of large-scale public works projects. Hundreds of millions have been poured into the project, with millions going for plans and to public relations consultants but with very little actual construction.

For years city officials counted on capturing the increase in property tax revenue generated by the Great Park Neighborhoods to finance construction of the 1,300-acre park. However, the Great Recession delayed the housing development. Then the plan was scrapped altogether when Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated the state’s redevelopment program, which would have provided the net for catching a $2.2-billion cash stream to build the park.

FivePoint Communities’ proposal, hammered out during months of negotiations with a council subcommittee, represents the first concrete alternative to build more than half the park since developer Heritage Fields in 2005 purchased the shuttered U.S. Marine air base on which the park sits.

“We’re ready. I hope you stand ready with us,” FivePoint Communities CEO Emile Haddad told the council before deliberations began.

The centerpiece to the proposal is a 176-acre sports complex that is to include 12 ball fields, 24 tennis courts, 11 sand volleyball courts and up to 31 more sports and multiuse courts. This part of the plan drew dozens of residents, including sports boosters, players and coaches, to City Hall in support.

Also in the plan is a 45-acre bosque, 227-acre golf course, 178-acre wildlife corridor and a 35-acre canyon. Most of the planned amenities, with the exception of the wildlife corridor, could be built by 2017, according to a FivePoint presentation. The development manager would be responsible for operational costs through 2023.

FivePoint would also chip in $2 million to study a potential cultural terrace area.

In exchange, FivePoint would have approval to build an additional 4,606 homes, bringing the total number of units to 9,500. In the coming weeks, the additional homes and the proposal to build the park will come before the council separately for final approvals.

There are still concerns from council members about the plan, despite their preliminary approval to finalize the negotiations.

Councilwoman Beth Krom said she is worried that while officials focus on creating a great sports complex, the dream of creating a public space on the level of New York’s Central Park will continue to fade.

“I am concerned about the public vision being overwhelmed by the commercial vision for the Great Park,” Krom said.

Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway said a publicly subsidized golf course could threaten the privately owned ones. “I don’t want to see a private golf course go out of business because we’re subsidizing golf,” he said.

Councilman Larry Agran, who led the fight against turning the base into an airport and instead transforming it into a metropolitan park, said he is concerned about some elements not aligning with the park’s master plan, which called for features like more agricultural land than FivePoint’s proposal.

Meanwhile, the council also decided to pursue another deal with FivePoint and the Irvine Unified School Disrict whereby the builder would buy 40 acres of parkland for at least $60 million to relocate a possible high school site.

Agran doesn’t like the site where the next high school is planned because it is within 1,000 yards of the James A. Musick jail, which could be expanded to house thousands more prisoners, and is too far from the neighborhoods where the school’s students would reside.

“I believe this is the worst possible location for Irvine’s next high school,” Agran said.

Also, Agran hopes to develop joint-use facilities between the park and the high school and use the money from the land purchase for development, putting city leaders closer to completing the park.

School district officials so far are cool toward the idea of moving the high school site. They have cited a need to open the school by 2016 and have expressed concerns about sharing facilities with the park.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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