Irvine Council Democrats Deride ‘Commercialization’ of Park

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A developer’s proposal to build a large swath of the Orange County Great Park in exchange for entitlement to build thousands of additional homes is facing intense scrutiny from the Irvine City Council’s Democratic minority.

Council members Beth Krom and Larry Agran, airing concerns at a special Great Park board meeting Tuesday afternoon called by Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, said the plan by FivePoint Communities to build 688 acres of the planned 1,300-acre regional metropolitan park is a far cry from the park’s $50-million master plan, developed by designer Ken Smith several years ago.

Agran went so far as to call it an “evisceration” of Smith’s award-winning design.

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

For years, Irvine officials counted on capturing the increase in property tax revenue generated by Great Park Neighborhoods to finance construction of the park, which they hoped would be on the level of New York’s Central 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.

Under FivePoint Communities’ plan, the builder would spend $174 million, with $40 million reimbursed by the Mello-Roos property tax levied on homes. The developer would chip in another $2 million to study a potential cultural terrace.

The centerpiece of the new plan is a 176-acre sports complex with dozens of ball fields, tennis courts, sand volleyball courts and other multiuse courts. There’s also an 18-hole golf course, a wildlife corridor, a 42-acre bosque, a 36-acre upper bee canyon, and trails for jogging and mountain biking.

Krom and Agran also say having a sports complex that would attract visits from across the country is “commercializing” the park, is not what Ken Smith had in mind and could result in negative traffic impacts.

“I don’t even know how we begin to understand what the impacts on our arterials are going to be if this park becomes the mecca of all team sports nationally,” Krom said.

Meanwhile, Republican council members Christina Shea and Jeffrey Lalloway — Republican Mayor Steven Choi was absent — said they aren’t too concerned with the changes from the master plan. Shea said that aside from the loss of the canyon, which she didn’t like anyway, it’s not really that different.

“I’m very excited that we’re going to be building the park,” Shea said.

Said Lalloway: “I don’t understand the concept of commercializing the park. This has always been contemplated.”

Brian Meyers, a developer’s representative who presented FivePoint’s project to the council, said that the sports park is not intended to charge local residents who want to use the facilities. Only regional- and national-level tournament uses would face user fees, he said.

Agran and Krom also had questions about the costs of the park, including construction, operation and maintenance. Agran said there needs to be a solid “economic plan” in place before the city picks up the bill for maintenance beginning in 2023.

Agran also questioned whether 688 acres of parkland could be developed for less than $200,000 an acre. The cost of developing the park so far has run about $500,000 per acre, he said.

“If you can prove it to me, you’ll probably have a lot of work available to you across this country,” Agran said.

Myers said he would provide written and more detailed answers to council members’ questions.

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

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