If all goes according to plan, an Irvine developer this summer will begin early construction phases to build hundreds of acres of the Orange County Great Park, a timeline that city leaders and a representative of the builder say is more than a year ahead of schedule.
“It’s gonna be exciting,” said Councilwoman Christina Shea. “Within a year we’re going to be out here and look at close to 500 acres of the park developed.”
However, not everyone is happy about the news. Members of the City Council faction that previously controlled the park say the development represents the commercialization of what was to be a purely public vision.
Construction of the 1,300-acre park project – or lack thereof – has been the most hotly debated issue in the city since the political battle 15 years ago over whether to turn the shuttered El Toro Marine Air Base into an international airport.
The Democratic council majority that previously controlled the park was sharply criticized for being too slow to develop the project, while spending large sums on costs like public relations and no-bid contracts. The Democrats have countered that they activated the park with special events and that stalled construction was caused primarily by the housing bust and Great Recession.
The frustration came to a head in 2012, when Republican candidates flipped a seat on the council and gained a three-member majority. The next year, they signed off on a deal with FivePoint Communities, which is building thousands of homes around the project, to construct 688 acres of the park in exchange for approval to build more homes.
Construction phases slated for this Summer are beginning earlier than promised in the deal, a PowerPoint presentation made by representative Patrick Strader at a council study session in April.
Among the plans is a 175-acre sports park that includes dozens of soccer fields and baseball, volleyball and tennis courts. There will also be a 40-acre bosque, a wooded recreational area with trails; a 36-acre “upper bee” canyon, which is a more modest version of the man-made canyon in the master plan; and a 178-acre wildlife corridor. The man-made canyon previously in the master plan would be replaced with a 188-acre golf course.
Shea says the sports park could be completed by the fall of 2016.
Those amenities would be in addition to the 88 acres of public space now available at the park, including soccer fields and a palm court complex, among other things.
Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway said the construction fulfills a promise made to the voters to "finally build out the Great Park."
"To accelerate [construction] faster than origninally anticipated shows we are dedicated to providing these amendiites and fulfilling these promises when we make them,” Lalloway said.
Currently, most of the development is focused on underground infrastructure, officials say. FivePoint has also removed at least four million square feet of the runways, according to Strader.
That presentation also claims grading for the upper bee canyon and bosque was supposed to start June 1 and that grading for the sports park would begin July 15. Whether those dates are still accurate is unclear. The developer did not respond to questions submitted by Voice of OC.
Councilwoman Beth Krom, the only Democrat remaining on the council, says the developments come with significant caveats, mainly allowing the developer to alter a public metropolitan park to make it a more profitable venture.
For one, the sports park would be “pay-to-play” whereby leagues would pay for access to the fields and occupy them often for tournaments, she said. The previous vision for the park was to have free access to the public, according to Krom.
She also says a future cultural terrace district, which is currently in the brainstorming phase and could include structures like an amphitheater, library and museums, would be jointly planned, and the city wouldn’t be able to move forward on the district without approval from the developer.
“We’re being treated like this child that can’t think for themselves,” Krom said.
And Krom criticizes a plan to tether the iconic orange balloon, which takes riders up hundreds of feet for a view of Irvine, or reduce the number of hours it operates.
“Christina wants to get rid of the balloon. What’s next, the Easter Bunny?” Krom said. “I swear to God, I don’t even recognize my city from my perch.”
Shea says the charge that the Republican council majority has embarked on a commercialization drive of the park isn’t true because, while the developer would be constructing the improvements, it would turn the amenities over to the city once completed.
“It’s just a bunch of Beth Krom’s rhetoric. It’s just not true,” Shea said.
As for the balloon, Shea said the approximately $1 million annual cost to operate it is too burdensome. She said she wants to explore all options.
“I would not have a problem with it being nonoperational,” Shea said. “It would be more of an iconic symbol out there. It wouldn’t be something for people to be riding.”