The housing boom may be bust and the economy may be circling the drain, but that hasn't stopped the design of Orange County's Great Park from being completed.
Even the smallest detail is intricately considered in the extensive plans for the Irvine park.
A model shows visitors at the northwest entrance parked on dirt roads flanked by jagged slabs of recycled concrete that look almost native to the environment. Shade structures replicate the look of floating clouds. There is a pond for fly casting and a spot for model airplane enthusiasts. Benches are custom designed, as are the signs for drinking fountains.
"The scale of the park makes things possible that you couldn't do in a smaller park," said designer Ken Smith, "like customized benches."
What is left unanswered, however, is when these plans to build what has been billed as the 21st century's first major metropolitan park might get underway and how that will be financed, now that the housing and retail development that was supposed to pay for the park has ground to a halt.
But that reality didn't dampen spirits Monday as officials previewed the latest designs for the $1.6-billion project, which feature a vast canyon, hiking trails, soccer fields, museums and more. The Comprehensive Park Design will be presented to the Great Park Board of Directors on Feb. 19, after which board members can decide what to do about building it.
"This is to help the Great Park Corp. and the City Council move from the design phase to the production phase, but it's not to dictate to them how to move that way," Irvine spokesman Craig Reem said.
He said the board might decide to move forward on one phase of development or on multiple phases.
After the design rollout, officials will turn their attention to a development plan, which may be ready by the end of June, Reem said.
"What you've seen are the pieces of the puzzle," he said, adding later in an e-mail message: "You take those puzzle pieces, and once you have the money, you put each piece into place."
As designer Smith explained the plans that he and dozens of landscape designers, engineers, construction managers, graphic designers and one ecologist have spent more than a year preparing, he expressed a sense of urgency.
"I just want to see bulldozers moving dirt around," he said. "It needs to start construction. We need to start building in as big a way as we can."
More than three years after Irvine approved the extensive development of homes and businesses at the closed El Toro Marine base in exchange for a 1,347-acre public park, no timeline exists for development.
Park officials said a business plan and budget are waiting for a new development agreement with home builder Lennar Corp., which plans to build houses and develop commercial and retail space around the park.
Late last year, the park's board members hired a firm to study how they might raise funds to pay for a pod-shaped shelter, palm tree court and performance area, to at least get things started.
According to the design, Great Park will replace what is left of the massive military base, which closed in 1999, with open space, an extensive canyon, gardens, a stream and a man-made lake. A wilderness corridor will connect the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park with the Cleveland National Forest to the east. At a terrace at the center, a complex of museum buildings will emerge from the sides of a man-made canyon snaking through the park.
For now, a balloon ride and a visitors center are open. Later this month, officials say, an ice rink will open for one month in one of the airplane hangars.