IRVINE — Instead of debates about whether the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station should become the site of a commercial airport, a prison or low-cost housing, a group of local planners Tuesday urged leaders to first consider giving Orange County what it notoriously lacks: a center.
"I see this as a marvelous opportunity to do something to solidify Orange County," Peter Bedford, chief executive officer of Bedford Property Investment Inc., said before a meeting of the Orange County Chapter of the The Urban Land Institute.
Bedford was one of three speakers invited by the institute's Orange County chapter to give their views on the future of the base, which is scheduled to close in four to six years.
At a news briefing before the dinner, the speakers and local members of the organization said the 4,700-acre base presents Orange County an opportunity few urban areas have had. The county, known for its master-planned communities, has the chance to redefine itself around a large, centralized project, they said.
But the planners emphatically resisted making any recommendations about what that project might be.
Members of the local chapter did, however, present six scenarios that evaluated the impacts of residential, commercial and public projects on the El Toro site, both with and without an airport. Although they cautioned that they were not taking a position, their scenarios suggested that putting an airport on the land would result in less traffic, air pollution and noise and greater financial benefits than if the entire property were densely developed.
"The airport isn't a yes-or-no issue," said planning consultant Steven Ross. "If an airport is appropriate, (the question is) how do you control it and shape it without it becoming a problem to the existing surrounding area."
Speakers Joel Garreau, a Washington Post reporter and author of "Edge City", a book on suburban growth, said the essential question facing Orange County is whether the myriad interests of its communities can be brought together in a single, definitive El Toro plan.
"Are there any institutions that can handle a question this big, or are we facing paralysis," Garreau asked rhetorically. "Maybe (El Toro) will just end up as wilderness."
Garreau and others at the briefing expressed some skepticism about whether a multi-tiered planning body, such as one proposed Monday by two county supervisors and South County cities, will reach consensus. The planning body, which still must be approved by cities and the County Board of Supervisors, would consist of representatives of numerous interest groups, organizations and cities that would make recommendations to a shared-powers authority consisting of city and county representatives.
"If the debate focuses just on what people want to avoid," Ross said, "it is going to be difficult."