Irvine City Council members this week took aim at FivePoint Holdings, the city’s partner in developing the Great Park, criticizing the developer for failing to communicate with the council about progress on the city’s most iconic public works project.
Council members unanimously approved a resolution calling on the developer to present monthly updates moving forward.
The action comes on the heels of a three-part investigation published by Voice of OC in March that examined the progress of the Great Park as well as how well local homeowners understand what is being built with their tax assessments.
FivePoint declined to comment on the council’s request.
The decision came during the council’s Great Park Board meeting on Tuesday afternoon. All members of the city council also serve on the Great Park Board.
The council’s central concerns started after learning from staff that a large development in the western sector of the Park was being put on hold. Projected to cost about $250 million, the amenities included a new training center for the Olympic Team USA Water Polo, several basketball and volleyball courts and a new parking structure.
USA Water Polo’s training center would also double as a public pool, but specifics on the public’s access have not been released yet.
Mayor Christina Shea said that the failure by FivePoint to inform the city council has been a “problem over the course of many years,” and said that the developer had previously provided monthly updates at public meetings but that the practice had been discontinued over the years.
“I think having flexibility with our development partner is important, but our partner needs to be a partner,” Shea said. “I think our public would like to know what FivePoint is doing, I would like to know what Fivepoint is doing.”
Shea proposed the motion to call for the monthly meetings.
According to city staff, FivePoint asked for the delay to potentially redesign portions of the water polo center and sports complex in response to COVID-19. The plans were originally due in the first quarter of 2020, but have now been put on hold indefinitely.
“I was on a call with the folks from FivePoint and they explained the COVID event has caused all kinds of disruption,” said city attorney Jeff Melching. “I gave you the explanation that was given to me.”
Shea said she thought that the idea of redesigning the entire center to make it compatible with social distancing restrictions was unnecessary.
“To redesign complete buildings based on a virus that will eventually go away and we’ll have a vaccine…I don’t find that to be something that resonates with me at all,” Shea said. “Our residents are of the understanding we’re moving forward on all these wonderful projects, and now we’re hearing it’s on hold indefinitely.”
Councilwoman Melissa Fox echoed Shea’s concerns, asking for clarification from FivePoint on the reasoning behind the delays.
“I think putting it on the back burner is a very bad idea and it certainly wasn’t done in consultation with the city,” Fox said. “We’ve made promises to deliver these amenities.”
City Manager John Russo said that city staff learned of the delay in a monthly phone call with FivePoint staff that he said usually consists of “lower level administrative type issues.”
Russo repeatedly stated that it was not city staffs’ decision or recommendation to halt development, and that they were serving only as the messenger from FivePoint.
When Shea brought up the potential of having updates sent directly to the council from FivePoint, Russo brought up concerns about the council communicating privately with FivePoint over the Great Park, saying that it could result in an inadvertent violation of the Brown Act.
“The Board wants to elevate this from staff to staff to principals to principals,” Russo said. “The best and safest way to do it is here in public.”
The council also disagreed over when they learned about the delay. While Shea and Fox said they learned about the delay during the meeting, Councilman Anthony Kuo said he learned about the delays two weeks ago.
“I received this update 2 weeks ago. So the idea that all of a sudden we’re hearing there’s delays with the Western Sector…I heard about this. So that’s given each of us the two weeks to follow up on this,” Kuo said.
Despite that, Kuo still supported the resolution for the monthly updates by FivePoint.
“We need to get to the bottom of what’s happening and why they are (delaying), but I’m not blaming anyone. I certainly think having heard this two weeks ago we should have had more information today,” Kuo said.
The new calls for transparency come as residents continue to ask for more information about how special taxes from homeowners near the Great Park help pay for infrastructure in the development, a point highlighted in the Voice of OC series.
While homeowners were notified about the cost of the special taxes before purchasing a home, many do not understand that their taxes go to build the Great Park, as opposed to having the money exclusively spent on their neighborhoods.
Their special taxes go towards many projects in the park, including paying for almost all of the $250 million center that was put on hold.
Many Great Park homeowners in public comment have asked to have a homeowner put on the Great Park Board or called for the creation of an advisory committee made up of homeowners, but in a press release the city said that under a 2014 ballot measure, the Great Park Board only voting members can come from the city council.
Shea said that part of why she requested the monthly updates was to show the public that there weren’t any undisclosed deals between FivePoint and the city.
“Our general public don’t trust us, they think that somehow there’s some sneaky things going on between us and FivePoint, but I hardly talk to them. I just don’t,” Shea said. “They need to confirm what they’re doing so the public understands what’s going on.”
The measure was approved by voters after it was put forward by the city council at that time, and its primary purpose was to institute stricter financial oversight of the Great Park with annual audits placed as a requirement.
We can’t have these big rollouts and parties and then nothing ever happens,” Shea said.
“It’s just got to be fixed. It’s broken and we’re not getting anywhere.”