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Irvine Reneged on Land Offer, Indians Contend

City cut back on El Toro property for a cultural center but says it had made no promises.

June 02, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

The stakes couldn't have been higher last spring when the Navy announced it was going to sell the former El Toro Marine base, which Irvine hoped to buy and transform into a West Coast version of Central Park.

At the urging of Irvine city officials, Craig Boardman of the Native American Indian Cultural Center asked county supervisors to hand over control of the military land to the city, in part so his group could pursue its dream of a 580-acre compound complete with museums, hotels and a herd of buffalo.

The entreaties worked. Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to let Irvine take over El Toro.

A month later, the city's offer of land for the Native American cultural center shrank to 20 acres.

"That's not even the parking lot," said Jane Uyeno Gentry, president of the unbuilt cultural center.

"We feel misled. Every meeting we had with Irvine, they'd get out their map and say, 'This is where you'll be.' We did everything they asked us to do."

To Irvine officials, the cultural center was a victim of circumstance, not connivance.

Within days of the April 2002 vote, the Navy met privately with city officials and told them to forget their plan to buy the base. Navy brass had decided that the land would instead be auctioned and the proceeds used to help pay the cost of closing and cleaning up the base.

Navy officials said they were willing to work with Irvine and allow some land to be dedicated to the city for public uses -- but only as a trade-off for maximizing the profit that could be made from developing the rest of the property.

At that meeting, the city learned that the 3,700 acres it had hoped to get had shrunk to about 1,300 acres and that much of that land already was claimed for streets, parking lots, sports fields, parkland and other public uses.

"The Navy took a different approach," said Dan Jung, who manages El Toro planning for the city and had written a "talking points" memo to Gentry to help cultural center officials make their pitch to supervisors.

Jung rejected the notion that cultural center leaders had been hoodwinked. "There was no commitment from us other than we've talked to them," he said.

For a year, Gentry's group has tried to resurrect its original plan for a campus of museums, hotels, open space, a conference center and a golf course at El Toro to rival the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.

A buffalo herd donated by the Pechangas of Temecula waits to graze on the former base's rolling hills.

The center has collected letters of support from Reps. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), and state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana).

Former Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad, who provided the swing vote for Irvine to annex El Toro, urged in a letter that the Navy give the land to Gentry's group outright. The Navy declined, saying it would complicate the land auction, which will be held this fall.

Coad said she sympathizes with the center's boosters. She said she was swayed, in part, to back Irvine because of its promise to accommodate the cultural center.

She said she also was disappointed by the collapse of another city promise regarding El Toro -- that it would funnel property taxes from base development to build parks in northern Orange County. That plan evaporated after attorneys determined that it wasn't allowed by state law.

Irvine's assurances were so convincing, Gentry said, that the center foundation turned down offers of land at two Southern California reservations and one in Canada, as well as private land in San Diego, Taos, N.M., and Denver.

Tustin offered about 200 acres at the Navy's former helicopter base, but "it wasn't enough," she said.

Irvine officials said they hoped that the center could be built, but El Toro's future changed when the Navy decided to auction off the land for development. Now, the city's park plan would have to be completely redrafted to accommodate the envisioned cultural center.

The city already has several nonprofit groups and other organizations that want space on what will be the public areas of the old base, Jung said.

Some public facilities have already been planned on the land to be auctioned, including a privately run convention center and a 275-acre parcel slated for a university -- a chunk of land already coveted by California State University Fullerton.

Even if the Native American group somehow got all of the city's 135-acre "museum district" and a 156-acre exposition center site, it would add up to only about half the original project size.

Jung said there simply is not enough land for the full cultural center, unless the group wants to bid on land itself or strike a deal with a developer who is bidding on base property.

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