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El Toro Proposal Sets Aside 4,000 Acres for 'Great Park'

Land use: It would be among nation's largest. Developers would bid on the other 15% of the base for retail space, sites for 3,400 homes. The Irvine Co. is bowing out.


After months of negotiations, Irvine and the federal government unveiled a plan Tuesday that calls for developers to create one of the country's largest urban parks at the mothballed El Toro Marine base in exchange for the right to build there.

The plan would set aside 4,000 acres--about 85% of the available land at the base--for sports fields, museums, wildlife corridors and other public uses, in keeping with the city's vision for a "Great Park."

The Navy announced that it would sell the base to the highest bidder after Orange County voters in March rejected a proposed airport at the site. That prompted critics to warn that tens of thousands of homes would be built and that the promised park would vanish.

The land will still be auctioned off to developers, but building will be restricted to clusters on the remaining 738 acres of the base. Permits will be granted for 3,400 homes and 2.9 million square feet of retail space.

The developers will have to turn over the rest of the land to the park as a condition of sale. They will also be required to fund the development and maintenance of the park. Under the plan, the Navy will pay to clean up any remaining hazardous waste from military operations.

"We will create one of America's greatest metropolitan parks right here in the center of Orange County," Irvine Mayor Larry Agran said. "[It] will be developed and maintained in perpetuity with private dollars."

Even as pro-airport advocates continue to press their case in lawsuits, Navy officials said their decision is final and that they will move forward with the plan even if the March vote is overturned in court.

The proposed park would be four times the size of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Irvine officials said it would be developed over 10 years, but parts could be open to the public by mid-2005.

"This is a dream come true," said Michael Pinto, president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. He and other conservationists said they were delighted by the setting aside of 1,200 acres to complete a "sea to sage" wildlife corridor stretching from Crystal Cove State Park to Cleveland National Forest.

Development industry analysts say bidders will likely line up for an opportunity to own some of the El Toro land, even if it means they have to put most of the acreage they buy--and millions of additional dollars--into the park.

"Availability of land in central Orange County is at a premium," said Richard Gollis, principal of the Concord Group, a Newport Beach real estate consultancy for builders of master-planned communities.

Buyers would also have development rights already in place, fast-tracking the approval process and allowing construction to start right away, thus saving them millions of dollars on land-use studies and potential lawsuits.

As much as half the residential development would be mixed among shops and offices in a proposed transit village, which would include a new Metrolink station near the Irvine Spectrum. Nearby would be a 39-acre expansion of the Irvine Auto Center and 117 acres zoned for research and development facilities.

Gollis said companies nationwide have expressed interest in the base and he expects a lively bidding war after Irvine completes the process of annexing the land from the county about a year from now.

One developer that is not interested--to the surprise of many--is The Irvine Co. The land is adjacent to its Irvine Spectrum complex, as well as its proposed 12,000-home Northern Sphere Project. Analysts had predicted that the company would buy any El Toro land that came on the market, if only to keep competition away.

Affordable-housing advocates, who hoped more units would be set aside for low-income workers, expressed some disappointment with the plan. The proposal requires one quarter of the homes built to be "affordable." But under current guidelines, such homes could still cost in the high $200,000s.

The park will also include 769 acres of meadows, a 164-acre sports park, a 151-acre "exposition area" that could be used by cultural institutions to build museums or libraries, 307 acres of agricultural land, and 582 acres of public golf courses, a cemetery and veterans memorial, and a "commercial recreation" district. The plan also calls for setting aside 276 acres for university purposes, land where Cal State Fullerton hopes to build a satellite campus.

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