Irvine City Council members approved a new plan for the city’s Great Park last month, but the city’s failure to follow through on the project’s last two master plans has left some questioning if what’s on paper now will ultimately be what goes into the park.
The new plan, dubbed the framework plan by city staff, calls for a variety of projects including a botanical garden, a library, lakes, an amphitheater, museums and a series of other facilities spread across 300 acres of the park.
Great Park residents pay for a lot of those improvements via a special Mello-Roos property tax, and after a Voice of OC series on the issue in 2020, residents started organizing and ultimately got a task force from the city council to share their opinions on the new development.
“Thank you for giving us an opportunity to speak as members of the neighborhood,” said Christine Sisto, a Great Park resident and co-chair of the task force, at the meeting last month where the council approved the plan. “We support the framework.”
A lot of those projects were announced nearly 20 years ago with the park’s original master plan in 2005, but were canceled or put on ice for decades as major development at the park largely stalled out.
So far, most of the park’s developed real estate has gone to a series of sports fields, a hot air balloon and several smaller facilities including a carousel and art complex.
City leaders are now looking to make some big changes, with Councilwoman Tammy Kim calling the new plan a “perfect storm,” that could kick off major developments.
“It’s absolutely a turning point,” Kim said in a phone interview.
When asked what makes this plan different from the past, city manager Oliver Chi had a similar response, saying that all the aspects of the development “had alignment,” now and pointed to two big changes – the departure of a proposed veterans cemetery and the city’s evolving relationship with FivePoint Holdings, their development partner at the park.
“Historically, there’s been different competing interests from time to time between the city and FivePoint,” Chi said in an interview. “There have been a number of different agreements between the city and FivePoint that have identified the ability for FivePoint to have outsized influence with what the city does.”
Chi said staff is currently planning a revised contract between the city and the developer before the council in September that could clean up who’s responsible for what in the park, and make it clear the city, not FivePoint, decides what gets built.
“We’re working to clean all that up in an updated adjacent landowner agreement,” Chi said.
Kim also said that FivePoint has had less influence on the city council since the departure of former CEO Emile Haddad.
“They’re a development partner, and that’s what they are. Nothing more, nothing less, and that’s what they have to remember. That is their role. They are not to dictate what we do, how we do it, they are not to leverage whatever they have and lord over us,” Kim said.
“They put their thumb on a lot of different things. Emile wanted to exert great power and influence over the city and its council members, but I think that dynamic has certainly changed.”
FivePoint declined to comment for this article.
The only one who’s raised concerns about the new plan is Councilman Larry Agran, one of the park’s controversial creators who’s served on and off on the city council since 1978, who’s concerned at how fast the city is moving.
“I think if there’s an insistence on rushing things, then we’re in some trouble,” Agran said in a phone interview, pointing specifically to the veterans cemetery issue.
Agran’s leadership on the Park’s development has been criticized for years, and an audit of the city’s work under his leadership found millions were spent without proper oversight, but the auditors later lost their auditing license over that report.
Over the last 10 years, there’s been an ongoing debate in Irvine where a potential state veterans cemetery could go in the park, but every city in the county has now voted in support of switching focus to a site near Anaheim’s Gypsum Canyon, including Irvine.
Now, the city is looking at building a small veterans memorial park next to a botanical garden and a library on the site where the cemetery was once set to go.
The only one opposing that move is Agran, who helped write a ballot initiative the council adopted in 2020 requiring a veterans memorial park and cemetery to take up 125 acres.
Agran has argued that move is illegal, and he says the city will be sued if they move forward without the veterans memorial park.
“My council colleagues need to obey the law, we need to go through a process that is consistent with the voter approved zoning of that area,” Agran said. “We will be sued.”
Councilmen Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo did not respond to requests for comment.
Kim, who pushed for the botanical garden to be the first thing the city builds in the park’s new stage of development, said the speed they’re moving at now is how it’s supposed to be.
“This is what is normal. The way in which (Agran) had things operate, going super slowly, and using everything as a political chessboard, those days are over,” Kim said. “We need to serve our residents and see to it that the hope and dream of the Great Park is actually real.”
Mayor Farrah Khan also called for the city to move past the veterans cemetery issue, praising the new plan for its flexibility that would let the city complete new projects.
“It’s now time we move forward. Suing the city will not resolve anything but cost taxpayers a lot of money,” Khan said in a text message.
Chi also said the new plan is going to be implemented quickly by staff, with plans for initial demolition and grading to start early next year.
“We want to demonstrate the city can deliver on this promise of a Great Park, there’s going to be a lot of intensive behind the scenes work the next couple of months,” Chi said. “We’re going to be able to deliver.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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