Irvine city leaders, in a split vote, moved forward with an aquatics center in the Great Park Tuesday night, saying it’ll be one of the first projects to break ground so they can host an Olympic team there. 

But now there’s a big question over what projects the city will have to sacrifice – or delay – to afford the aquatics facility, with City Manager Oliver Chi warning they can’t have everything based on their current budget. 

“We have a finite set of resources,” Chi said. “I don’t want to commit to the council that we can do something I don’t think is feasible.” 

The city council ultimately voted 3-2 to prioritize the aquatics facility, with Councilmembers Tammy Kim and Kathleen Treseder asking to move forward with previously planned projects and consider looking at ways to add in an aquatics center if possible, with or without USA Water Polo. 

An aquatics facility has been a question at the Great Park for over a decade, with USA Water Polo first approaching the city about the idea in 2007. 

After an initial $250 million aquatic facility plan fizzled out during the pandemic, a new plan for a potential $90 million aquatics center was proposed at the Great Park that would be built by 2028 at the earliest.  

But city council members weren’t satisfied with that, asking that construction be fast tracked so the city could have the potential to host something for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. 

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said the council needed to focus less on community benefit projects and more on “staple amenities,” that would bring in a wider audience. 

“While we definitely want to make sure we have community amenities at the Great Park, the Great Park itself is really this regional draw that needs these big items that are actually going to bring people in,” Khan said. “If you just have community amenities in the Great Park, you’re just going to have community coming.”

“You’re not going to be a destination park. You’re not going to be what we envisioned the Great Park to be.”

Chi made it clear that if the aquatics facility is getting moved up, other projects will have to be delayed or cut altogether, and asked for time for staff to look at the potential consequences. 

“If the board’s direction is to make sure we include aquatics, we’ll figure out what a series of options might look like,” Chi said. “I would hate to have the board lock in a series of projects we haven’t had a chance to provide feedback on.” 

The choice on the aquatics facility came as staff asked council members to approve a $720 million plan to build an amphitheater, botanical gardens and a series of other major features at the park that would be built in the next five years.

It’s the first phase of the proposed “framework plan.”

[Read: Irvine’s Great Park Has Its First Development Plan in Years, Can the City Deliver?]

Councilwoman Kim said city officials shouldn’t jeopardize the overall Great Park plan.

“I’m not looking to subsidize USA Water Polo,” Kim said. “I don’t want this to stop phase one … we should move it up (in the timeline) on the condition that we’re still in negotiations.” 

Councilman Mike Caroll laid out a list of amenities they would choose not to cut out, including the amphitheater, the botanical garden, areas for food vendors, and other big budget items. 

But Chi warned that saving too many projects won’t leave enough room in the budget for them to build everything in the next five years. 

“The struggle I’m having is there’s only $720 million and the guard rails you’ve provided don’t provide enough flexibility,” Chi said. 

“If I may,” Carroll interjected. “The struggle I have is I got 300 emails and a lot of residents out here that wanted a water polo facility voted on 3 times.” 

“This council can decide whatever it wants to do, but I’d like to have a vote.” 

The proposed water polo facility received praise from dozens of people during public comment at the council meeting, who said they were worried about the lack of public pool options in the city. 

The facility would be open to the public, but USA Water Polo would have special scheduling privileges in exchange for a $12 million construction contribution to the facility.

With Carroll’s limitations, many of the cuts will likely have to come from the area dubbed the “heart of the park,” that surrounds the amphitheater. 

Under the framework plan, that area was set to include two lakes, a small forested area, and a large, open grass field called the Great Meadow. 

City staff are set to return next month to discuss what the potential cuts to the park’s plans will be going forward, with it remaining unclear which projects would be delayed or killed altogether.  

“We’ll have to come back with cutting out certain elements that weren’t in the guard rails,” Chi said. “Staff have concerns about some of the associated costs.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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