Irvine leaders, business executives and residents came out to the city’s Great Park for the first groundbreaking in years this week, touting an expected billion dollar investment plan for the park over the next ten years.
On Tuesday morning, city officials gathered around an excavator that knocked over one of the old El Toro Marine Air base’s leftover outbuildings as they sketched out an ambitious plan for the press, their partners and other civic leaders.
But while the city has committed to a variety of new projects across the park’s 1,300 acres, they’re still negotiating the final details on the most high profile projects like an amphitheater city staff have called Irvine’s Hollywood Bowl.
Many of those same projects, like a children’s museum, a performing arts school and an airplane museum, face hard questions on financing, with a host of public private partnerships on the table.
Last year, city leaders announced a new initiative to develop the park dubbed the framework plan.
It’s the first formal plan the park has had in years, one that includes projects such as a 14,000 seat amphitheater, an aquatics center, a botanical garden and two lakes.
“We can confidently and fully say there’s no turning back,” said Irvine Councilman Mike Carroll, who’s also chair of the Great Park board, in an interview with Voice of OC after the ground breaking.
“This is America’s premiere metropolitan park.”
But it’s a park that hasn’t delivered on many of the promises made to residents over twenty years ago, when city leaders announced they were moving ahead with the construction of a park instead of an airport on the remains of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
Over multiple city councils, very few projects got approved outside a variety of sports fields, walking trails, a large ice rink and a hot air balloon.
The biggest shift in recent years was the arrival of the water park Wild Rivers, but much of the park’s planned 1,300 acres remains undeveloped.
Almost none of the original promised amenities at the park, such as a man made canyon, a library and a row of museums, ever arrived.
In 2020, Voice of OC published a three-part investigative series highlighting the lack of progress at the park, the lack of resident engagement and the ensuing usage of special Mello-Roos taxes to fund projects approved by the city and FivePoint Holdings, their development partner.
[Read: The Great Park Tax: How Irvine Homeowners are Paying for the City’s Big Dreams]
Since that series, the city has restructured its deal with FivePoint to remove them from the decision making process.
[Read: Irvine Set To Remove Great Park Spending Limits in New Development Deal]
Residents meanwhile increasingly rallied at city council meetings to get a voice in the park’s development, ultimately getting their own advisory committee to voice what they want to see at the Great Park paid for with their tax dollars.
When Are Projects Set to Arrive?
Irvine City manager Oliver Chi, who was among the loudest cheerers at Tuesday’s event, said that the rest of this year will largely be spent on demolition and site grading to set up the park for construction.
The first buildings aren’t scheduled to open until 2026. It also remains unclear exactly which projects will be open first.
The event was universally praised by city council members, who pointed out that it was the next big step in the park’s decades-long development.
“It is so gratifying to see this move forward,” said Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder in an interview with Voice of OC.
“I am so glad that after decades of gridlock…things are moving forward,” said Councilwoman Tammy Kim. “Everything is being built in phases…I want to see that through.”
But while some of the planned projects are on a fast track to construction, many others are still on hold as city leaders figure out the details, or whether or not the projects will move forward altogether.
So far, the city’s plan for a botanical garden and veterans memorial park appears to be moving the fastest toward reality, along with some planning for open meadows and green space at the park.
City staff are still negotiating with Live Nation over bringing a potential amphitheater to the city, after city council members told them to keep negotiating when staff said they weren’t having any success.
[Read: Should Irvine Taxpayers Float a Public Amphitheatre for an Entertainment Giant?]
Live Nation Southern California President Bret Gallagher was at the groundbreaking, but declined to comment on the negotiations.
The city council also initially moved up the construction of an aquatics center set to be the home of the Olympic Team USA Water Polo, before pushing construction back to the end of the decade a few weeks later.
Many of the park’s largest attractions are being built through special Mello-Roos taxes on the homes surrounding the park, which city leaders are using to finance more than a billion dollars in construction costs.
Parisa Yazdani and Kristine Sisto, co-chairs of the city’s Great Park Task Force, said they’re excited to see construction moving forward after years of status quo, but that they’re waiting to see something get built before they start the real celebration.
“We have been holding our breath and it feels like it’s coming to life,” Yazdani said in an interview with Voice of OC. “Until there’s a shovel in the ground though I don’t believe it.”
Sisto asked city leaders to stay on track with the projects they’ve already approved and stop approving any new ones for the near future.
What’s the Future of the Cultural Terrace?
Another big question hovers around the park’s cultural terrace, which is currently set to be the home of OC Music and Dance, the Flying Leathernecks Aviation Museum and Pretend City Children’s Museum.
Both OC Music and Dance and Pretend City have facilities in Irvine, but are looking to bring a new performing arts school and children’s museum to the Great Park, respectively.
The Flying Leathernecks’ collection of historic airplanes had a home at San Diego’s Miramar base, but is currently seeking to return to the Great Park, where the planes were originally housed when El Toro was still open.
All three groups are finalizing deals with the city, according to city staff and council members, with Carroll adding the process was delayed due to Surplus Land Act requirements imposed by the state.
Those projects will be privately funded, but it remains unclear how many of them have the funding to start construction.
Carroll also added that some public funds could be going toward those projects, but declined to specify how much, only saying it would be “significant,” investments.
“That’s going to be a combo,” Carroll said when asked who would pay for those sites. “Some will require public capital.”
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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