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Irvine park plans forge ahead

City OKs $60 million to begin a wildlife corridor and add features around the balloon ride.

May 09, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Irvine's Great Park may be behind schedule, but not for lack of plans.

The Orange County Great Park board Thursday approved spending $60 million by summer 2009 to build a park around its tethered balloon ride, demolish buildings, create a wildlife corridor and continue designing the 1,347-acre project planned for the closed El Toro Marine base.

The bulk of the money-- $45 million -- will be spent on projects budgeted for the current fiscal year but that have not been carried out, largely because of delays by Lennar Corp., the developer that plans to build thousands of acres of homes and businesses around the park.

Lennar's construction will provide the bond money and tax revenue to fund the park.

But with the slow housing market delaying the builder's plans, those funds have been slow in coming in, and park construction is proceeding slower than expected.

"We didn't invest in things that didn't happen," Irvine Mayor Beth Krom said.

"They were just delayed because of the housing market."

Irvine, facing criticism for delays on the $1.1-billion project, has hired consultants to lobby the state and federal government for grants and to find private donors who will support the park.

Because Lennar has demolished about 2% of the hundreds of acres of runways, land ready for shaping and landscaping is limited.

The budget must be approved by the City Council, whose five members comprise a majority of the nine-member Great Park board. Spending on previously approved projects includes $13 million for the wildlife corridor, which is designed to give animals a path from Orange County's foothills to parkland along the coast.

It has not been built or landscaped, mainly because Lennar did not develop the golf course it promised to build next to it. The golf course was to provide irrigation for the corridor.

Lennar last month announced that because of the dismal housing market, it had changed plans and will first break ground on the northwest corner of the base, called the Lifelong Learning District. Plans for that area call for fewer homes and more educational and commercial space.

Patrick Strader, a lobbyist representing the firm, told the board Thursday that the project will break ground this fall, and that the company had sent a mailer to every Irvine resident to tell them so.

Designers are shifting their focus to sections of the park closest to the learning district, which will include recreation fields and a forested area.

One board member criticized continuing to pay balloon operators while the ride remains grounded after a former pilot's safety complaint launched a Federal Aviation Administration investigation.

In March the agency found no evidence the balloon had been flown unsafe, as former pilot Jonathan Bradford alleged. A city-funded investigation later declared the ride safe and questioned Bradford's credibility. "We didn't cause the problem. Their pilots caused the problem," said board member James "Walkie" Ray. "I expect we're out several hundred thousand [dollars], and I don't think we should bear that cost."

The park's operations manager, Rod Cooper, said he was negotiating with Aerophile, the balloon operator, to reduce how much the city pays in next year's contract.

Board Chairman Larry Agran said it was "inappropriate" to blame the park or Aerophile for a "baseless" allegation.

Both the FAA and city investigations recommended better record-keeping procedures, which park officials said are being put in place. The ride is expected to reopen in July, once it gains newly required FAA approvals.


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