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Not-so-great park

Orange County project has collapsed under the weight of a sagging economy, with little to show for millions spent so far

October 27, 2012|Tony Barboza

Ten years after Orange County residents voted to turn a shuttered military base into one of America's most ambitious municipal parks, most of the land remains fenced off, looking very much like the airfield the Marines left behind.

The city of Irvine has spent at least $203 million on the project, but only 200 acres of the promised 1,347-acre Orange County Great Park has been built, and half of that is leased out for commercial farming.

Most of the money has paid for plans, designs, administrative costs and consultants, with less than a fifth of it going toward actual park construction, according to a Times analysis of the spending.

Now, the money to build "the first great metropolitan park of the 21st century" -- as the city calls it -- has just about run out, leaving Irvine leaders to contemplate radical measures: Selling off public land to raise funds or asking private business to step in and build the park for them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 30, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Great Park: A photo caption with an article in the Oct. 27 Section A about development of the Orange County Great Park referred to the park's balloon attraction as a hot-air balloon. The balloon is filled with helium.

The park, by now, was supposed to be filled with scores of sports fields and eventually museums, cultural centers, botanical gardens, and maybe even a university -- all tucked into a bucolic landscape of forests, lawns, a lake and 60-foot-deep canyon that would be scooped from the earth once the barracks and runways were demolished.

But there are no baseball diamonds or regulation soccer fields. No canyon, no forest, no sprawling museum complex.

As much as anything, the lofty plans for the park -- an expanse intended to rival San Diego's Balboa Park or even Central Park in New York -- collapsed under the weight of the sagging economy.

When the housing market started to dive, developer FivePoint Communities Inc. halted its plans for building the thousands of homes that were supposed to surround the park and generate tax money to fuel its growth.

The most crippling blow landed last spring when the state -- in an effort to trim California's ballooning deficit -- grabbed the project's main funding source: $1.4 billion in property tax funds.

The Great Park that exists today doesn't look anything like the colorful city brochures that landed in mailboxes years ago, promising to go "From Groundbreaking to Great Park in only 5 years."

Still, visitors pour into the lone corner of the base that has been developed with a tethered balloon that shuttles them 400 feet in the air, an arts complex dotted with palms, a carousel and a lawn popular with soccer players.

The city's final chunk of construction money will be spent by next year, when officials expect to finish a 30-acre complex of soccer fields, basketball courts, gardens, ponds and a permanent visitors center.

But most of the features that would transform the World War II-era base into a major destination exist only on paper. Most of the acreage remains undeveloped, largely off-limits to the public. Virtually all of the runways are intact, leased out to raise money.

Officials now say the Great Park will take decades or even generations to finish.

Critics, who have long questioned the project's fiscal discipline, doubt Orange County will ever get the park that was promised.


Born in better times

The idea for a Great Park was born during brighter economic times.

Voters in 2002 agreed to turn the raw landscape of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into America's next great municipal park rather than an international airport as county supervisors wanted.

The military sold the land for $650 million to Lennar Corp., then one of the nation's largest home builders. As part of the deal, Lennar paid $200 million in development fees to Irvine and in 2005 transferred 1,347 acres to the city in exchange for the rights to surround it with thousands of homes and businesses.

Once in the city's hands, the money went quickly.

In all, $90 million was poured into planning and designing the park but just $38 million was used for actual construction, a Times analysis shows. Some $29 million went for administrative costs and $28 million toward operations. An additional $16 million paid for publicity and free events -- concerts, pumpkin harvests and anniversary celebrations. Nearly half the money paid to contractors was awarded without competitive bids.

In its analysis, The Times studied more than 10 years of Great Park financial records, obtained under the California Public Records Acts. The data included hundreds of contracts and tens of thousands of expenditures through April of this year.

Irvine officials did not dispute the results but said they classify Great Park spending differently. Design and construction costs, for instance, should be grouped together, they said.

One of the largest expenditures went to New York-based landscape architect Ken Smith, who won an international competition to design the Great Park.

The landscape designers, planners, architects, engineers and public relations consultants that Smith selected, some paid as much as $250 an hour, cost more than $47 million, records show.

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