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Flight plan soars

For inspiring design, look no further than O.C.'s Great Park.

October 17, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

AT a time when Renzo Piano is at work on Wilshire Boulevard, Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne among the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles and Rem Koolhaas on the Caltech campus in Pasadena, perhaps the single most promising design project in Southern California is slated for a very different kind of location: an expanse of cracked-asphalt runways and peeling military barracks in the geographical center of Orange County.

There, on the site of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the city of Irvine and the Miami-based developer Lennar Corp. are moving ahead with ambitious plans to turn nearly 4,000 acres of land into the Orange County Great Park. The federal government shuttered El Toro in 1999; it was on track to become a huge new international airport before Irvine voters finally killed the idea in 2002 in favor of open space.

The new park will have commercial development along its periphery and will include meadows, trails, wetlands, wildlife corridors, sports fields and a cluster of cultural buildings. Its first phase is scheduled to open in 2008.

Last month, an impressive list of seven competing teams -- led mostly by landscape design firms but also stuffed with architects, artists, engineers and environmental consultants -- was trimmed to three finalists. There is a group headed by Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey of Mill Valley, in Northern California; another by Ken Smith Landscape Architect, a firm in New York; and a third by Barcelona-based EMBT Arquitectes, founded by the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Orange County Great Park -- An architecture review in Monday's Calendar section of the designs for the Orange County Great Park stated that Irvine voters derailed plans for an airport at the site of the former El Toro Marine base. In fact, Orange County voters were the ones who rejected the ballot measure.

A final decision had been expected this month. But the board of directors of the Orange County Great Park Corp., set up by the city of Irvine to administer the competition and run park operations, decided last week to delay the announcement until January. The board, which includes the five members of the Irvine City Council and four independent directors, is getting ready for a series of trips to visit recent work by the finalists in the Bay Area, New York and Spain.

They shouldn't bother. The proposal by Smith's team -- a high-powered group that includes the Mexican architect Enrique Norten, artist Mary Miss and Los Angeles landscape designer Mia Lehrer -- outshines the other two plans in both imagination and rigor. The board should acknowledge the obvious and get on with the business of building Smith's promising design, which alone among the finalists combines a fully contemporary aesthetic with respect for the military and agricultural history of the site.

The Great Park project will include 1,316 acres of parkland ringed by a 2,400-acre band of commercial development. The budget for the park section alone, pegged initially at roughly $500 million, will certainly go higher and may ultimately approach $1 billion. The park will be funded by Lennar -- in an arrangement similar to the one Related Cos. has struck to develop for-profit parcels and a civic park along Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles -- and by property taxes paid by owners of new residential development at the site, which will include 3,400 houses.

Rivals Griffith Park's size

Orange County residents may wish the ratio of developed to open land were less generous to Lennar. But at more than 1,300 acres -- a figure that doesn't include nearly 1,000 open acres that will stay in federal hands -- the park will be bigger than San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and will rank second in size in Southern California only to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The park may even manage to give culture mavens in L.A. a reason to envy their neighbors to the south.

The envy should grow more intense if the team led by Ken Smith prevails. Although his oversized black-framed glasses immediately mark him as a member of the design intelligentsia, he has a surprisingly down-to-earth, even folksy manner. That quality comes through in his work, which is spare, with Modernist and classical roots, but also brightly colored and approachable.

His current projects include landscaping for the area around Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's 7 World Trade Center tower just north of the ground zero site in Manhattan and, with the architects Richard Rogers and SHOP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli, a design for the East River waterfront.

At the heart of his proposal for Orange County is a canyon snaking through the center of the park. It would be formed by scooping earth from the center of the canyon and piling it on either side in tall berms, creating a valley that would be 2 miles long and more than 60 feet high at certain points.

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