Irvine residents will still receive an aquatics center home to an Olympic team at the Great Park, but it now won’t be ready in time for the 2028 Olympics.
At last month’s city council meeting, Irvine city leaders voted to fasttrack the long dormant aquatics center project and delay the creation of the Great Meadow, a small forest and proposed lakes at the park, a group of improvements collectively known as the Heart of the Park.
[Read: Irvine Guts Great Park Plan In Favor Of Olympic Aquatics Center]
But now, they’ve changed their minds.
In a narrow 3-2 vote, city leaders decided to let the aquatics project move forward, but took it off the list of projects that were being expedited at the park, meaning it could arrive as late as 2032.
Mayor Farrah Khan proposed the idea of trying to move the projects forward simultaneously, but city staff said that would cost at least $80 million and likely wouldn’t be possible.
“It’s hard to contemplate how you’d pull that cash out without impacting another part of the operation,” said City Manager Oliver chi.
Now, heart of the park features like the lakes and meadow will be prioritized over the aquatics center and will arrive first, alongside the city’s plans for a 14,000 seat amphitheater, a botanical garden and a series of other projects.
[Read: Irvine’s Great Park Has Its First Development Plan in Years, Can the City Deliver?]
Originally, there was a chance that the facility would be home to some of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic games.
“USA Water Polo will bring the Olympic Games to the city of Irvine,” said Rudy Baldoni, a member of the group’s board of directors, at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Now, that’s no longer an option, with Chi saying the facility won’t open until beyond 2028.
“There was an explicit vote and discussion on delivery of the aquatics facility by 2028 and that was not approved,” Chi said in a Wednesday phone interview. “Based on that direction and the cash flows coming into the park … no, the aquatics facility isn’t planned to be delivered by 2028.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, the move to prioritize the heart of the park was supported by the Great Park Task Force, a panel appointed by city council members to advise them on what Great Park residents want at the park their special taxes fund.
“The members of the task force support an aquatics facility that benefits the residents of Irvine at a cost and timing that does not delay community features … known as the heart of the park,” said Krystine Cisto, co-chair of the task force. “These items, as requested by the Great Park residents, should not be delayed to accommodate any other projects.”
While the aquatics center project was originally billed at around $250 million, the council approved a new budget cap of $80 million for the project.
The project will be funded by special Mello-Roos taxes on the homes surrounding the Great Park in addition to a $12 million donation from USA Water Polo, which is being set aside to pay for their private part of the facility, according to city staff.
The council extensively discussed cutting USA Water Polo out of the project, but ultimately voted to move forward with their involvement amid concerns that the city would be going back on its word with the organization.
Councilman Larry Agran, who voted in favor of moving forward with USA Water Polo at the last meeting, said it was “a vote I would probably like to have back,” and said the current deal fails to give the city any tangible benefits.
“I see how it serves their interests and the interest of their community, the athletes, the young people and so forth. It serves their interests, but I don’t see in that agreement the benefit for the larger Irvine community,” Agran said.
Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder brought up the organization’s history of sexual misconduct, pointing to the nearly $14 million settlement USA Water Polo paid to a dozen female water polo players who accused their coach Bahram Hojreh of sexually abusing them as minors.
“I do not trust this group to protect our kids from sexual abuse,” Treseder said. “I know one of the victims of this coach … I will not be in support of any partnership with USA Water Polo.”
USA Water Polo did not respond to Treseder’s concerns during the meeting.
USA Water Polo did not respond to a request for a phone interview and instead issued a statement to Voice of OC on Wednesday evening, in which the organization’s CEO Chris Ramsey praised the council’s decision to continue working with them.
“We are pleased that the City of Irvine reaffirmed its commitment to a Great Park Aquatic Center in partnership with USA Water Polo,” Ramsey said. “The $80 million investment in the Center will pay huge benefits for the Irvine community.”
Mayor Farrah Khan, Councilwoman Tammy Kim and Councilman Mike Carroll voted to keep USA Water Polo’s involved.
But Kim also voted with Agran and Treseder to move the project off the fast track.
Kim criticized Agran for initially voting in favor of the project, and pointed out how she had previously called for them to drop USA Water Polo but that it was too late to do so at Tuesday’s meeting.
“You went with the motion to support water polo and the aquatics facility and to forsake all the framework plan,” Kim said. “To a certain point this council has to do what it says and says what it does, we can’t keep flip flopping every meeting to something different.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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