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Great Park a Question Mark

August 04, 2002

Irvine's political leaders are acknowledging what many Orange County residents already suspected: It will take a huge pile of money to build a really Great Park at the former El Toro Marine base, and another mountain of green to maintain it. And it's clear that city officials don't know where all of the money will come from.

Critics fume that the funding gap is further proof that the Great Park was never more than a ploy to bury plans for a commercial airport at El Toro. And, because nothing about El Toro is ever simple, two county supervisors are demanding that the park plan go on the countywide ballot in November--potentially the fifth such vote on what to do with the closed base.

The Navy's decision to sell 3,763 acres of the former base to developers clearly wasn't what Irvine expected. The city thought it would get the land free; the Navy instead opted for an auction. Bidders must agree to deed 84% of the land to the public and contribute to a park construction and maintenance trust fund.

As we said in July, the agreement marked a bold but question-provoking start. The list of questions began to mushroom days after the park proposal was unveiled, when Irvine acknowledged that some elements of the Great Park will heavily depend upon donations. Irvine's city manager described gardens, ponds and stone walkways as "jewelry" that will be paid for by donors. That description won't sit well with county residents who view such elements as ingredients in a true Great Park recipe.

A key question is how much risk developers will be willing to shoulder. That answer won't surface until bid packages are released. Risk is inherent in development, but developers' bids will fall short of Irvine's mark if now-cloudy issues aren't clarified.

Real or feared environmental clean-up costs could derail the bidding process. Irvine maintains that the land is clean, but the Navy's environmental impact report assumed that fighter jets would give way to passenger airplanes, not picnickers.

Developers also need to know whether sewage lines, roads and other essentials must be repaired or replaced. They need more details on the long-term financial commitment Irvine will demand to fill the proposed trust fund.

In an odd twist, a city known for master planning is moving forward without a master developer along the lines of The Irvine Co. The city's major developer has said it won't bid on the base land or play a role in its development. The auction is intended to generate quick revenue for the Navy, but a piecemeal sale won't ensure that the various Great Park components move forward in harmony.

Finally, in a free-market economy, key elements of the plan will depend upon the economy cooperating. The county's perpetual housing shortage means that the 3,400 proposed homes will easily be absorbed. But the proposed 2.9 million square feet of retail space might not immediately succeed in a county saturated with retail centers. The Irvine Co. also has approvals to add 17 million square feet of office space nearby.

It's early in the Great Park process. But Irvine can smooth the road by quickly answering the growing list of questions.

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