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A Great Park chill brings on cold feet

After appearing to settle on a designer, board members in Orange County seem to be reconsidering.

January 20, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

When we last checked in on the Orange County Great Park, plans for the 1,300-acre project on the site of the former El Toro air base were moving ahead with promise, speed and a surprising lack of rancor. After a pair of juries trimmed 24 entries in an international design competition to three firms, momentum quickly gathered behind a single finalist, New York landscape architect Ken Smith. Officials in other cities -- including Los Angeles, where planning for a new civic park downtown is just getting underway -- began talking about the Orange County effort as a model for balancing design, politics and public input.

All that remained, it seemed, was for the Great Park Corp.'s board, which is made up of the five members of the Irvine City Council and three independent directors, to make Smith's choice official.

Alas, the situation has grown murkier, and a good deal more combative, in recent weeks. Several board members, worried about the ability of Smith's small office to handle the sprawling project, are now leaning toward another finalist, the Northern California firm Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey -- conveniently forgetting that they'd dismissed its initial park proposal as irredeemably bland. Others are giving more thought to an alluring but rather abstract plan by the third finalist, Barcelona-based EMBT. The board's chairman, former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, continues his efforts to cobble together a majority for Smith and his team, which includes artist Mary Miss, architect Enrique Norten and L.A. landscape designer Mia Lehrer.

It remains unclear what will happen when the board members reconvene Monday morning. They may choose Smith's team, whose design features a dramatic man-made canyon with buildings by Norten and others tucked into its side walls. They may hand the job to Royston or, in the least likely scenario, to EMBT. Or they may insist that the three finalists collaborate, an ill-conceived idea they first publicly explored at their Dec. 15 meeting.

Of course, cold feet and failure of nerve among public officials are nothing new when it comes to expensive, high-stakes building efforts. Yet the park, which will include wetlands, wildlife corridors, cultural buildings and athletic fields, in many respects marks uncharted territory for American landscape architecture. It combines the size and ambition of Olmsted-era designs, such as Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, with the complexities of a Cold War cultural and military legacy and an emphasis on environmental sustainability. It holds the potential to reshape the image Orange County projects to itself and the outside world. And it arrives in an era when the public increasingly expects bold design in large-scale public and cultural projects.

That last fact, it turns out, may explain many of the problems now plaguing the project. As cities from Seattle to Dubai use iconic buildings to burnish their reputations, we're seeing more cases in which leaders praise the benefits of adventurous design and then run into trouble when they realize that such design carries significant risks or doesn't neatly match traditional definitions of civic architecture.

That contrast between architectural ambition and political reality -- or, to put it another way, between high-design iconography and bureaucratic prerogative -- was on display to an excruciating degree during the Great Park board's Dec. 15 meeting. Finally facing the chance to make good on their promises to bring a "visionary" and "world-class" design to Orange County residents, board members instead executed a perfect 180-degree turn toward conservatism. They lauded the "long history" and "long-term viability" of the Royston team. They worried aloud about Smith's lack of experience, particularly in working on large-scale park designs.

"I'm going to make a decision based on who can deliver -- on security," said one board member, Irvine Mayor Pro Tem Sukhee Kang.

After a couple of more hours of parliamentary hand-wringing, the board voted to explore the idea of asking the three finalists to join forces, in a vaguely defined collaboration, on the final park plan.

It is one thing, given the scope and complexity of this project, to choose one winner and then ask that team to enlarge its ranks. That's what happened when Michael Arad prevailed two years ago in a high-profile competition for the World Trade Center memorial. Then a 34-year-old architect with virtually no record of built work, Arad was convinced by the jury to add the Berkeley firm Peter Walker and Partners to help flesh out and execute his design.

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