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Irvine plans review of Great Park funds

With a new majority taking over the council, officials want to examine how $200 million was spent developing only a portion of the former Marine base.

November 16, 2012|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • The Marine Corps insignia is visible on some of the buildings at what is being turned into the Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
The Marine Corps insignia is visible on some of the buildings at what is being… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Irvine leaders are planning a detailed review of the $200 million spent on what has been billed as the country's next great urban park, one that is supposed to rival New York's Central Park with a majestic man-made canyon, rivers, forests and botanical gardens.

Despite the spending, only a sliver of the park has been built, and most of the Marine base land remains fenced off. Park funds are expected to be exhausted next year.

With a new majority taking over the council next month, city leaders indicated that they want to take a closer look at the decade-long effort to build the municipal park.

PHOTOS: A not so 'Great Park'

"The three of us have been severe critics of the profligate spending at the park and because of that we want to know where every dime has gone and what we've received for it," said Jeff Lalloway, an incumbent council member. "I think that's a fair question."

Lalloway and his allies have been especially critical of the amount of money spent on planning, public relations and events at the Orange County Great Park rather than construction.

"I want to build the park," Lalloway said. "I'm not certain that the current council majority has been ever interested in doing that."

A Times analysis last month showed that less than a fifth of the money spent on the park was actually used for construction. Only about 200 of the promised 1,347 acres have been developed, and half of that has been leased for commercial farming. The runways of the former Marine base have yet to be pulled up, and some of the barracks remain.

The Times also found that nearly half the money contractors were paid was awarded without competitive bids and that a public relations firm was paid a $1.2-million annual retainer.

"My No. 1 suggestion is that the council authorize a forensic audit in the next year and look at where the dollars have gone," said Christina Shea, an incoming council member who previously served on the panel.

There have long been bitter feelings between the two Irvine council factions, and they have leaped to the forefront again.

Much of the new majority's anger is directed at Larry Agran, one of the park's strongest advocates and one of the city's most veteran political figures, who has long headed the liberal faction that has usually controlled city affairs.

"It's not Larry's private project, but the city's," Shea said. "We need to get it back on track. Is it worth $240 million? I don't think so."

Agran, who remains on the council after losing the race for mayor, declined to talk to The Times, other than insisting that there had been only one or two no-bid contracts.

Beth Krom, an Agran ally on the council, opposes an audit. "I would put it in the witch-hunt category," she said. "I'm not sure what they're looking for, what they're going to find. It's more about headlines than going forward."

She also criticized the new majority's attacks on the amount of money spent on planning. "In my world, you plan first and execute afterward," she said. "What we need now is not slash and burn. What we need is creativity. You can find money. You can't find vision."

Great Park was the object of one of Orange County's great political battles. County supervisors wanted an international airport on the decommissioned Marine base, but county voters decided in 2002 that they preferred a showcase park.

City leaders made a deal with a developer to build homes and businesses around the site that would provide taxes to pay for construction and operation of the park.

But the city now faces questions of how it is going to pay for the remaining park construction.

Developer FivePoint Communities Inc. put its plans on hold when the housing market crashed.

Then last spring, as part of its solution to California's budget deficit, the state grabbed the $1.4 billion in redevelopment funds that were earmarked for the park over the next 45 years.

FivePoint can build 4,894 homes. Early this year, the company offered to trade the rights to develop about 1 million square feet of commercial property for an additional 5,800 homes in a complicated deal that would bring the city about $200 million.

Lalloway, who has been half of Irvine's two-person negotiating committee, said they have not talked to FivePoint since May or June. "I personally have no idea where the deal is because in my opinion it's not moved since that time," he said.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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