It's a hot, windless summer day. Ken Smith is standing in the giant, orange, tethered helium balloon that has become a symbol of everything good and bad about Orange County's planned Great Park. The sky is blue and from 400 feet up one can see the endless sprawl of homes, the ocean and rolling hills that define this suburban county.
Through round, black sunglasses, Smith looks down at 1,300 acres of a closed Marine air base; 1,300 acres of possibility.
If all goes according to plan, Smith will transform the concrete runways and abandoned hangars beneath him into a park that some say could stand up against New York's Central Park as one of the nation's great urban parks. It could redefine what's possible in building parks -- leading the charge in transforming abandoned land. It could give a center to this nebulous county.
Smith spent a career preparing for a project like this, though he didn't believe he would ever get to take it on. Yet here he is -- surveying the land from the floating navel orange that he envisioned beckoning visitors like a roadside attraction. He is the unexpected winner of a worldwide competition, and has been given the project of a lifetime. If all goes according to plan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Great Park: An article in Thursday's Section A on Orange County Great Park designer Ken Smith included the statement, "To the northeast is the urban sprawl of the county's older cities. To the southwest are the newer master-planned ones." The correct directions are northwest and southeast, respectively.
But the ambition of the Great Park is strained by politics and money. In the last months, plans have drastically changed. Naysayers are louder than ever. Money that has been promised is nowhere in sight and the public is growing increasingly skeptical. Yet here he is. An Iowa farm boy turned New York landscape designer -- watching, waiting and planning.
The international competition Smith won to design the Great Park was something of a publicity stunt to build support for the park.
The park was born of a nasty, nearly decade-long political battle over the future of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. A divided Board of Supervisors wanted to build an airport there, but south Orange County cities fought the idea. Irvine proposed a park, an idea embraced by county voters in 2002. City leaders made a deal with a developer to build surrounding housing and businesses to fund the park.
A letter inviting Smith, 56, to participate in the design competition landed on his desk in 2005.
"I remember looking at it and thinking, 'Whoa, that's a really big park. I don't have a chance at that,' " he says. Up to then, the largest park Smith had worked on was a 13-acre project in Santa Fe, N.M.
Irvine officials took all-expense-paid trips to meet finalists. In Europe, they toured sprawling parks built by a well-known Spanish firm. In Northern California they saw well-used parks designed by a California firm.
In New York, they met Smith, who had put together a team of well-regarded architects and artists to make up for his inexperience and distance from California.
Smith had been to Orange County once in the early 1990s. "The first time I came through, there was still orange trees here," he says. "It was kind of shocking to see how quickly it had changed."
The design Smith's team submitted was more ambitious and innovative than others.
"There was a creative, even whimsical aspect to what Ken was doing," says Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine and chairman of the Great Park Corp. Details such as an artificial canyon, nods to county history and small touches such as the balloon "suggested a design genius," he says.
Smith has a broad smile and a giddy laugh. Christina Shea, the Irvine city councilwoman who opposed hiring him because of his lack of experience, has said he's the type of man she would have over for dinner. It's easy to tell when he's excited about an idea because the smile appears and his eyes get wide. "Isn't that cool?" he says.
He was raised on a farm in Waukee, Iowa. "My high school counselor had a very limited view of the world," he says. "In his view, boys became engineers" and girls became homemakers.
He tried engineering for a quarter in college then switched to landscape architecture, combining a growing passion for the environment with enthusiasm for art.
Where Orange County is all beaches and sun, Smith's outward appearance is almost a caricature of the New York intelligentsia. Even on the hottest days, he sticks to his black, long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, black shoes and black-rimmed glasses.
Where Orange County's master-planned communities are strait-laced and orderly, Smith takes pleasure in irony. And although the Great Park was envisioned as one of the country's largest public works projects, Smith was known mostly for clever art installations such as transforming a hotel room into a contemporary Eden of fake flowers.
In the afternoon heat, Smith is standing on a pale slab of concrete where two runways meet.
"I'm always kind of blown away by how beautiful this place is," he says.
To the northeast is the urban sprawl of the county's older cities. To the southwest are the newer master-planned ones. The ground is the detritus of the last century's wars; endless concrete, abandoned hangars, tumbleweeds and dirt.