Less than a year ago, the city of Irvine and developer FivePoint Holdings were close knit partners, working on the largest civic construction project in county history at the Orange County Great Park.
Today, the two can’t even agree to sit down for a meeting discussing project timelines.
The breakdown comes after a Voice of OC investigative series released in March raising troubling questions about oversight and the funding mechanisms for the Great Park, which placed special taxes on homeowners moving in near the park, in housing developed by FivePoint.
Those taxes then go towards developing much of the Park, including a $250 million aquatics center and other large scale projects, with the clearance to take over $1 billion in special tax dollars to fund construction.
While all residents knew about the additional taxes, interviews with residents by Voice of OC found that none knew where the money was going.
Last October, the two came together to announce the aquatics center project, and commemorate that FivePoint would be contributing $28 million towards a state run veterans cemetery in Irvine, making them the single largest contributor to the project.
“It’s wonderful,” said Councilman Anthony Kuo at the meeting. “I’m really excited about the progress that we are making and have continued to make, and we certainly could not make without our partners from FivePoint.”
Mayor Christina Shea, the only remaining member from when the city began working with FivePoint and their parent company the Lennar Corporation nearly two decades ago, thanked staff and spoke about how this construction would launch the rest of the Park’s development.
“This is really a wonderful day,” Shea said. “It’s so wonderful that we are finally getting this park built.”
FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad also spoke to the council at that meeting, echoing the council’s appreciation for staff and the partnership.
“Today, I don’t stand here as a developer, I stand here as your proud partner,” Haddad said. “I believe that what we saw is much bigger than an agreement. It is much bigger than a facility. What we saw is a celebration of public-private partnership.”
“Madame Chair, and the rest of the board members, thank you for your leadership,” Haddad said.
Flash forward to today.
FivePoint has announced they are pulling funding for the cemetery after it was moved to a new site, and have refused council requests to appear and explain delays on several Great Park projects.
At the last Great Park Board meeting, the city council was told multiple projects in the Park, including the aquatics center, were being delayed by FivePoint for redesigns due to COVID-19 just days before the plans were supposed to come back to the city.
No timeline was given to the city by FivePoint to suggest when the projects may move forward.
The council unanimously approved a resolution calling for FivePoint to appear at their next meeting, and at monthly meetings after that to inform the public in open session what progress had been made on their projects.
“Why aren’t we contacted?” Shea asked after city staff told the council the projects would be delayed. “I had no understanding about this at all. I would suggest that our development partner, if they’re going to discontinue developing something, pushing it off…they need to call the board of directors.”
Shea cited the October meeting with the “fanfare” of announcing the projects, stating that FivePoint could not just change course on projects without notification.
“They need to send a letter and confirm what they’re doing so the public understands what’s going on,” Shea said. “It was a big rollout…all of a sudden, it’s just not on the table anymore and no one knows about it.”
Councilmember Melissa Fox, who was absent from the October meeting, also criticized FivePoint’s decision to act without the city.
“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.”
FivePoint declined to comment on the meeting, only stating they would not be attending at the council’s request in any form.
The projects being discussed reflect only a small fraction of the development planned in the Great Park in collaboration with FivePoint.
When told by Voice of OC reporters that FivePoint would not be attending the meeting, Shea said that she would be calling for a discussion to send them a letter laying out the information they want to know.
“We have to understand what promises for projects were made and are now off the table,” Shea said in a text to Voice of OC.
At that same October meeting, FivePoint also repeated the promise they would be contributing $28 million towards the veterans cemetery if it was built on land once zoned to be a golf course in the Great Park.
Under a contract, they were required to contribute $18 million to the cemetery at that site, but promised another $10 million.
At a meeting last month, the city council adopted a voter initiative to move the cemetery to a different site, with hangars, runways, and other portions of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The golf course site was also on land that was previously part of the air base.
Shea directed Councilwoman Melissa Fox to reach out to FivePoint the next morning, and ask whether they would consider contributing any funds to the new site.
In a phone call with Voice of OC, Fox said she spoke with FivePoint lobbyist Patrick Strader the next morning, and he stated that they had “no interest” in allocating funding to the new site.
“It was a long conversation, we explored what potentials might be. They just said that they are not interested. (Strader) said he was going to get me a meeting and never got back to me,” Fox said.
Strader did not return requests for comment from Voice of OC.
With the cemetery moving to the hangar site, FivePoint is now cleared to develop a golf course in the Great Park.
“The principals need to be talking to the principals,” Shea said at the last Great Park discussion. “Someone there that’s a principal needs to be talking to us.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.