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Orange County's 'Great Park' Comes With a Great Price Tag

El Toro: City will need hundreds of millions to add 'jewelry' to lawn. Critics say cost will force massive development.


Talk about an eyesore. Years of neglect have turned the El Toro Marine base into a bunch of shabby buildings atop an ocean of cracked asphalt, weeds and dead grass.

But Irvine officials look at this blight and see a lush park with thousands of trees, rolling meadows and a vibrant museum district--a vision they promise to fulfill without raising city taxes a dime.

Their plan: Substitute a tax hike with a lot of creativity and a lot of charity.

Critics say they are dreaming.

Some crafty maneuvering will allow the city to at least get started. An asphalt recycler will tear out the base's runways for free so it can then crush the concrete and sell it. Flexible government bond financing will allow the city to start putting in sewers and building roads.

But creating the Great Park voters approved in March as an alternative to a commercial airport is going to require major private donations.

Since the decade-long battle over whether to build an airport ended, the city has been working with the Navy to find a way to reimburse the federal government for the land and finance its transformation into a park.

City Will Start With Vast Expanse of Lawn

A deal announced last week was lauded as the solution: The Navy would sell the 4,738 acres to developers, who would then turn 84% of the land back over to the park project. They would also have to put money into a trust fund for park construction and maintenance.

That will, indeed, pay for a park. Just not the "Great Park" that Irvine pitched to voters. More like a vast expanse of lawn.

"There will be a lot of fund-raising to add what we call 'jewelry' to the park," said City Manager Allison Hart. The jewelry could be anything from gardens, ponds and stone walkways to gymnasiums and other community recreation buildings.

These things are not cheap.

Consider the recent Bryant Park project in midtown Manhattan: It cost $13 million to build that seven-acre gem.

Experts peg the more modestly landscaped El Toro project at closer to $200,000 an acre--with an additional $50,000 or so an acre to create a maintenance fund. Still, even park supporters acknowledge that it adds up to many, many millions.

That has led critics to charge that the park was just a ruse to stop the airport, and that Irvine will be forced to allow massive development on the property because it won't be able to afford to hold onto it--much less build a park.

They also question city assurances that the park is nearly clean of hazardous materials, pointing to studies that suggest the Navy has not investigated much of the site for toxic material that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to remove.

"The only part of this plan that will become a reality is the massive development," contends the Airport Working Group of Orange County, a coalition that has lobbied for an airport.

Yet those involved in designing urban parks elsewhere say there's nothing outlandish about the city's plan.

Designers of Other Parks Say Idea Is Solid

"There is no reason they cannot pay for this park completely with private money," said Dan Biederman, who runs the management company for Bryant Park in New York City. "Irvine offers a climate that is favorable to free enterprise and is full of a lot of innovative people and businesses."

The city needs only to scrape together enough to build a quarter of the 4,000-acre park. The rest--including the golf courses, university campus and federal wildlife corridor--will be built and managed by others.

But that quarter is the heart of the proposed park: the 1,000 acres now occupied by the runways. It's those planned meadows, playing fields, and a cultural complex for museums and libraries that Irvine must figure out how to finance.

Over the next few months, city officials will estimate those costs, and determine how much should be funded by developers who will bid to build 3,400 homes and 2.9 million square feet of retail space on parcels at the park's perimeter.

"A lot of developers are eager for those details," said Christine Diemer Iger, a lobbyist and past president of the Building Industry Assn. of Orange County. "They want to put the numbers into their spreadsheets and see how they can make this pencil out."

Complicating the financials is the fact that the money coming from the developers may take years to appear. Usually cities get funds from such deals in increments as homes are built. So some say Mayor Larry Agran's promises that 50 to 100 soccer fields could be in place within a few years, as well as thousands of saplings, are wishful thinking.

"Usually money to do those kinds of things trickles in based on building permits or sales," said Steve Weston, a land-use attorney. "That takes time."

Others who have helped develop parks on closed military bases warn of more potential problems. "You've got to ask the right questions early on and not just get some funds and start building," said Gregg Calpino, a landscape designer with SmithGroup in Chicago.

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