Runways and hangars at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which is now the site of Irvine's Great Park. (Photo credit: unknown)

Monday, December 20, 2010 | In an effort to dramatically reduce costs and speed up the building of Irvine’s Great Park, the park’s board of directors last week approved moving forward with a scaled-back design of the park’s 200-acre cultural district.

This means that some of the structures that anchored the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, including airplane hangars and runways, will likely remain a part of the Great Park.

This is a significant change given that Irvine officials had looked at the runway demolition as a symbolic gesture to the public and a signal that the 4,700 acres that make up the former air station would never become the international airport voters rejected in 2002.

That year Great Park Board Chairman Larry Agran promised “this time next year [fall 2003], we’ll be having jackhammer parties at El Toro to tear up the runways and begin construction of the Great Park!”

The revised plan for the “cultural terrace,” which carries a $317 million price tag, has a menu of amenities, including a man-made lake, an amphitheater, a botanical garden, a library and an outdoor performance venue. A new road is also planned to service the museums, according to a staff report.

However, the new plan, if approved, would not include the demolitions of the runways and hangars, nor the construction of a new museum. And it is still far from clear whether even this plan will come to pass. It still faces a lengthy entitlements process, and the money to build the district has yet to appear.

“The cultural terrace is a wonderful vision for partial use of the park; however, it still remains to be seen how we’re going to fund any of this development,” said new Director Jeff Lalloway.

The new plan projects significant cost savings. Keeping the hangars, for example, is estimated to be 25 percent of the cost to provide new buildings, according to a staff presentation.

Ken Smith, master designer at the Great Park Design Studio, called the scale-back a “response to the economics of the times.” He also said the revisions leave space to add other cultural facilities in the future.

Much of the new building space comes from the reuse of hangars 296 and 297, each of which are over 200,000 square feet and were originally planned for demolition. They are to be used to house the museum of history and aviation and an arts and culture center.

Staffers have identified a few potential sources of revenue to build the district, including public-private partnerships, state and federal grants, and tax increments from the Heritage Fields neighborhoods around the park.

Yet many hoops remain.

Because of the significant changes to the plan, including an increase of the total square footage of building space — to 844,000 square feet from 494,000 — the plan will require an amended environmental-impact report. The reports are typically expensive and complicated endeavors.

The entitlement process is expected to take two and a half years to complete, according to a staff presentation.

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