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Irvine Park Envisioned as Bold `Cultural Experiment'

A design team details its plans for the former air base. At 1,347 acres, the Great Park will be larger than New York's and San Francisco's.

October 13, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Great Park will have a botanical garden, museums and a stream-fed lake that will transform an old Marine base in the midst of suburban sprawl into a bold "social and cultural experiment," the park's New York design team said Thursday.

Landscape architect Ken Smith, who leads a team that is designing what will be one of the nation's largest urban parks, said they had taken the middle of the flat, featureless former El Toro base and -- on paper at least -- created a lush canyon and green expanse including a stream stretching nearly two miles and dotted with footbridges.

"Some of the key ideas that we originally had are still there," Smith said, unveiling the park's preliminary master design at Irvine City Hall. "But the thing that has changed the most is the social aspect of the park."

The plan will put more emphasis on gathering places, pathways such as footbridges, and things to see.

Smith said the design team was continuing to work on the park's ecology and natural settings while dealing with competing interests for more bike and hiking trails, and activities such as hang-gliding, fly fishing and paddle boats.

"A lot of this is still evolving," Smith said.

One of the major themes for the park is water, said Steven N. Handel, a restoration ecologist on the design team.

"Originally this was agricultural land that had streams running through it before they built the base during World War II," Handel said. "And now we want to see what's possible to bring back, including a stream, a lake and vegetation that requires low water use."

Park boosters such as Irvine Mayor Beth Krom hope that the outdoor experience can be as prominent as that at Orange County's beaches and wilderness parks.

"We want this area to be the heart and soul of Orange County," Krom said.

One of the keys, she said, is that the park will be next to the Irvine Transportation Center, allowing park visitors to arrive by Metrolink or Amtrak trains and reach the park by shuttle.

"This will be one of the few places in the county, if not Southern California, to have people living next to a huge park that is mostly car-less," she said. "We're really creating a unique environment."

At 1,347 acres, the Great Park will be larger than Manhattan's 843-acre Central Park and San Francisco's 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park. It would still be dwarfed by Los Angeles' 4,200-acre Griffith Park.

But unlike other parks and preserves that already had lush, rolling terrain, the Great Park will take shape on a stretch of barren land that for decades was used by fighter pilots.

Mark Baldassare, research director for the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco and a former UC Irvine professor, said it would be a "tall order" for the park to become the heart and soul of a diverse county of 3 million.

"It's a very ambitious plan," he said, "and one that will definitely reshape that part of the county and the region as planners are proposing."

But many things tug at the interests of Orange County residents, Baldassare added. For shopping "there's South Coast Plaza," and for the arts "there's the Performing Arts Center."

"Whether the park will become the heart and soul, we'll see what happens."

The park will be built without a general tax increase, officials said. They will rely instead on fees and taxes collected from surrounding development.

The park will be at the center of a massive, 3,700-acre development by Lennar Corp., a home builder.

Lennar paid the U.S. Navy $649.5 million last year for the base and then transferred land for the park to Irvine. The park will be completed in phases, with work expected to begin early next year and some areas to open by 2009. Officials said the entire park may take decades to complete.

In an upward revision of earlier estimates, officials expect the park to cost nearly $1 billion. With fees and development taxes, they plan to raise more than $700 million.

But the park will have some cost-saving measures such as water recycling and electricity generated by solar panels.

The city is considering an application from Lennar to build more housing.

The preliminary design will be on display for three weeks at the Irvine Civic Center, beginning Saturday.


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