Irvine City Council Praises Developer After Criticizing Communication Failure in May

Irvine City Council Livestream

Irvine city council meeting on Aug.11, 2020. Council members Mike Carroll, Anthony Kuo and Farrah Khan and city manager John Russo are recognized for their work.

The Irvine City Council gave a commendation to developer FivePoint Holdings Tuesday night after calling out the company for failing to be transparent with the public just months earlier. 

FivePoint is the city’s primary partner in the development of the Great Park, Orange County’s largest civic construction project. The company donated one million masks to the city earlier this month.

In May, the council criticized Irvine-based FivePoint for failing to inform the city about the timeline on various projects that were halted due to the coronavirus, and asked that company representatives begin attending the council’s monthly Great Park Board meetings. 

But on Tuesday night, the council praised the company for its commitment to the community and its donation of face masks. But after the meeting, at least one council member expressed concerns over FivePoint’s communication with the council. 

The council receives a monthly update on development in the Great Park, and the projects that were put on hold in May include a $250 million aquatics center that contains a new parking structure and field house with multiple indoor volleyball and basketball courts. The center is also set to be the new home of Olympic Team USA Water Polo. 

The City Council announced the center with a large rollout in October 2019, a fact that council members brought up multiple times throughout a council meeting in May. 

No timeline for when the projects would move forward was presented, but City Attorney Jeff Melching said FivePoint was delaying the projects due to the pandemic and the buildings may need to be redesigned due to the virus. 

“I think putting it on the back burner is a very bad idea and it certainly wasn’t done in consultation with the city,” said Councilwoman Melissa Fox at the May meeting. “We’ve made promises to deliver these amenities.”  

The morning after that meeting, FivePoint said it would not be attending any upcoming Great Park Board meetings, and the council’s June and July meetings made no mention of the panel’s earlier demands of the developer. 

In giving FivePoint a commendation Tuesday, the council thanked the company for “its dedication to the Irvine community,” and offered its “deepest appreciation to our community partner.” 

The item was originally set to be an official recognition under the announcements portion of the agenda, but was moved to the consent calendar because no representatives from FivePoint were present to accept the award. 

Mayor Christina Shea brought up a recent drive-through mask distribution event that took place over the weekend, thanking the company for giving the masks to the city. 

“It was fantastic…none of us could believe how many cars were coming through,” Shea said from the dais. “It was made possible thanks to a generous mask donation thanks to our partner.”

In the May meeting, Shea was one of the company’s biggest critics, stating that a lack of communication with the developer had been a long-running issue. She also proposed the council’s vote to ask FivePoint to attend Great Park Board meetings.   

“There’s not proper communication, we’ve had this problem over the course of many years,” Shea said then. “It’s just got to be fixed. It’s broken and we’re not getting anywhere.”

The reversal Tuesday came just months ahead of the November election, where four of the five council members are running for office: Farrah Khan and Shea are both seeking the mayor’s post, Fox is running for state Assembly and Mike Carroll is running to keep his council seat for the first time after he was appointed in 2019.

Conservatives have held a majority on the City Council since 2012, but with three seats open the majority could swing either direction, and no matter the outcome there will be at least one new member as Fox isn’t seeking reelection to the body. 

The city’s voting base has also shifted over the years, and Democrats currently hold a 15% registration advantage over Republicans, but 30% of the voters are registered as no party preference. 

FivePoint has traditionally been one of the biggest spenders in Irvine elections, contributing at least $2 million toward candidates and ballot measures through a variety of political action committees over the last four years, according to campaign finance disclosures at the city and state level. 

So far, Voice of OC has found no records of donations made to candidates by FivePoint during the current election cycle.

Councilwoman Khan, who also serves as chair of the Great Park Board, said she spoke with FivePoint officials and thought that a monthly update wouldn’t be necessary. 

“We know they’ve delayed water polo and the field house because we’re all waiting for future guidelines on what this looks like for our future activities,” Khan said in a phone call with Voice of OC. “It doesn’t make sense for them to come at each meeting and say the same thing, I’d rather it be something substantive.”

Other members of the council who spoke out against FivePoint had varying opinions on where the relationship between the developer and the city now sat. 

“I think they’re just two different subjects that we’re working on,” Shea said in a phone call with Voice of OC after the Tuesday meeting. “One is developing the Great Park and the other is acknowledging your partners for giving an overall benefit to the community.”  

“We have to be thankful when people do good things, and if they’re not living up to certain expectations we need to call them on that, just like in any relationship.” 

Shea also said that FivePoint had engaged in more conversations with city staff, but that she hoped they would send a representative to speak to the City Council and public in the near future. 

Councilwoman Fox also said she appreciated the company’s efforts with the mask donation, but that their refusal to meet with the council was not acceptable. 

“I think we’re supposed to be partners in this, and it’s required they work with the council. I think it damages the relationship,” Fox said in a phone call Tuesday evening. “That doesn’t mean they didn’t do a great thing with the masks.” 

Fox said she hoped the council would take a stronger stance on trying to bring FivePoint to the table to continue further discussions. 

“There’s been a history of push pull relationships, and you need a strong council. Developers have their interests, and you have to have a strong council to balance that out,” Fox said. “I think now, especially during the virus, that we should be leaning on our partners to come forward and work with us on the agreement. And I think we have the potential as a council to do that.” 

Councilmen Anthony Kuo and Carroll did not respond to requests for comment.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.