In a meeting that stretched well past midnight Tuesday, Irvine City Council members approved a controversial deal for a home developer to build more than half of the Orange County Great Park in exchange for the right to build thousands of additional homes around it.
The council votes broke down along partisan lines, with Republican council members Jeffrey Lalloway, Christina Shea and Mayor Steven Choi voting for the deal and Democrats Larry Agran and Beth Krom voting against.
The hours-long negotiations seemed at one point to hit an impasse over whether the city or the developer would operate and maintain the park. The deal up until then had FivePoint take on that responsibility through 2023.
Lalloway, who was the swing vote, said he would defend Irvine’s control over the park “to the death.” He wanted to take an offer from developer FivePoint Communities that allowed Irvine within 12 months to decide to operate and maintain the park immediately after construction, with the developer making a schedule of payments totaling $10 million.
Lalloway introduced new language to the deal -- just before midnight -- to exercise that option immediately. Lalloway's amendments also call for the developer to chip in another $10 million for improvements to Marine Way, a major thoroughfare into the park.
FivePoint and city leaders, visibly weary and stressed, took a recess to review the three pages of language. With not enough copies to go around, reporters took photos of the document and the assistant city manager later handed out photocopies to FivePoint officials.
Choi said that he wasn't happy about the "11th hour negotiations."
The move flabbergasted Shea, who said that the operations and maintenance costs to the city hadn’t been studied enough.
However, Shea relented and agreed to the change.
Applause and cheers erupted after the council approved the agreement.
The meeting ultimately ended just before 2 a.m., with dozens of observers still in attendance.
After the meeting, developer Emile Haddad said he was "excited and relieved."
"And now I just want to get some sleep," he added.
Wednesday morning’s vote came after heated opinions from residents, who disagree on whether this is a smart move or whether the city should negotiate for a better deal.
Under the plan, private developer FivePoint Communities would pay for and build 688 acres of the park at an estimated value of $172 million.
About $40 million of that amount would be paid through a special property tax, known as Mello-Roos, on the homeowners.
The construction would include among other features a massive sports park, an 18-hole golf course, a wildlife corridor and a canyon, though not the much more expansive canyon envisioned in the master plan.
In exchange, the city will allow FivePoint to build an extra 4,606 homes on land now zoned as commercial and industrial, taking the total to approximately 9,500.
Those extra houses are expected to give a big boost to FivePoint’s profits. Some residents claim it’s worth more than $1 billion for the developer.
With city funds for the park mostly drained, this would likely forge a path toward getting more than half of the park built within the next few years.
That could mean youths would have much earlier access to its projected 17 soccer fields and 25 tennis courts, among other amenities.
Yet some argued that FivePoint’s proposal doesn’t match the quality and scale of the park’s master plan. One major point of contention was the replacement of the impressive man-made canyon with a 188-acre golf course, an amenity some criticized as appealing to few residents.
Some residents argued that the city should have kept negotiating toward a better deal. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the city should demand a Great Park from the developer, not just a "Pretty Good Park."
Agran -- who in 2002 first led the successful charge against turning the shuttered El Toro Marine Corps Air Base into a commercial airport and instead build the Great Park -- asked officials with the developer if they would be willing to give up the golf course -- an idea Agran described as "insane" -- after signing the deal.
"The answer is no. Unequivocally," said FivePoint representative Brian Myers.
The 1,300-acre Great Park was envisioned to compete with the other greats, like New York's Central Park and San Diego's Balboa Park.
However, the Great Recession, housing market collapse, and Gov. Jerry Brown's elimination of redevelopment agencies decimated the $2.2 billion funding plan.
Irvine's redevelopment agency would have captured the rise in property tax revenue from construction of new homes around the park. With that mechanism eliminated, city leaders had struggled to come up with an alternative funding stream.
With no plan B, Choi said the FivePoint deal was the only foreseeable option.
"What happens to the park's future if we don't approve this plan? Unfortunately, not much," said Choi.