The Irvine City Council majority Tuesday night shot down a plan to change the location of a proposed veterans cemetery at Irvine’s Great Park, and in doing so angered Chinese residents who believe the cemetery would create bad feng shui in the neighborhoods that surround it.
The proposal was essentially a land swap between Great Park Neighborhoods developer FivePoint Communities and the city. The city would have given up a 125.7 acre piece of land near Irvine Boulevard in exchange for a 124.9 acre site off Bake Parkway and visible from Interstate 5.
Many Vietnam War veterans consider the park site hollowed ground because it sits on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and was the point of departure for soldiers en route to the war.
“Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was the last piece of America they saw as they left this country to fight in battle,” said veteran Alex Diaz.
But the cemetery site is adjacent to homes and near Portola High School, and its location could hurt home sales to a burgeoning number of Chinese buyers who live by the feng shui philosophy, which is centered on the idea of balancing energies.
In addition to veterans, the council chambers was packed with Chinese residents, many holding paper signs saying “Yes On Land Swap.” Chinese are Irvine's largest Asian majority, making up about 12 percent of the city's population.
Most of the veterans in attendance – including members of a city veterans committee that studied the issue -- also supported the land swap. They said they didn’t want to the cemetery to become a loathed neighbor of Chinese residents. They also said the alternative site is better because of its prominent visibility.
Emile Haddad, CEO of FivePoint Communities, also supported the land swap, calling it a “win-win-win” because of the apparent agreement from both veterans and Chinese residents.
But a majority of the City Council disagreed with the proposal, which was put forward by Councilwoman Christina Shea. They said it would derail a good plan by making Irvine’s bid for a veterans cemetery less competitive for federal funding.
CalVet, the state department for veteran’s affairs, is conducting a $500,000 feasibility study of the current site in order to prepare for a federal grant application that has a July 1 deadline. Council members said any change in plans would put Irvine in the “back of the line” and seriously threaten the city’s ability to have a veterans cemetery.
“[CalVet’s] got 88 other applications sitting there already. Do we want to move to the back of the line, is that what we want?” Said Councilwoman Beth Krom.
Proponents of the land swap said they don’t want to pull back on the process for the current veterans cemetery site because of exactly those concerns. Instead, they want to include the site as an alternative in CalVet’s application.
However, council members dismissed the idea that going on “two separate tracks” will lead to anything but the elimination of any future veterans cemetery in Irvine.
Some residents were openly hostile to the idea of allowing Irvine's public policy to be influenced by the ancient Chinese philosophy.
“Superstitions from Asia have no place here. They should not even be considered. Much less discussed,” said veteran Larry Bales. “Land swap isn’t a solution, it’s a capitulation.”
Krom and her former council colleague and ally, Larry Agran, expressed suspicion that the land swap was really just a ploy by the developer to construct more housing.
Krom pointed to a letter from Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation Chairman Bill Cook as evidence. The letter, which articulates the reasons for the proposed land swap, was signed by Cook but written by someone with FivePoint Communities.
Cook acknowledged that Krom's assertion was true, but said it nonetheless fully represented what he would have written.
Agran, a former U.S. Army soldier, said now is not the time for he, Cook and others to retreat from a site they fought hard to secure.
“Two years ago we won the key battle to establish the southern California Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park, we took that hill two years ago. Why would we surrender it now? Why would we surrender even one inch of it?” Agran said.
Shea said her colleagues didn’t do their homework on the plan and that submitting the other site as an alternative for CalVet to consider would not derail the proposal. She also argued that it was a better site because the process wouldn't be hampered by millions of dollars in demolition costs, which is the case at the current site.
“I feel like we’re creating our own superstitions up here,” Shea said.
And Shea countered claims that the land swap was really about the developer's profit margins. She said the site FivePoint is giving in exchange was worth more because the developer could sell it off to an organization for its international headquarters.
In the end, the council voted 3-1 against the proposal and instead passed a motion from Krom to reaffirm their previous decision. The motion also allocated $100,000 toward moving the current veterans cemetery plan forward. Mayor Steven Choi voted against the motion, saying it was weak and unnecessary.
Shea walked out of the meeting before the vote was cast and said she didn’t need to reaffirm her commitment to the cemetery. After the vote, some Chinese residents walked out of the chambers, hissed at council members and yelled “shame on you.”