Up and Away: Irvine’s Bucolic Great Park Plans Become 9,500 Homes and a 188-Acre Golf Course

Great Park -- Does the Balloon Pop Tomorrow?

Irvine City Council majority intends to pop the grand plans for the Great Park at its meeting tomorrow.

Many, many people writing in Orange County know more about the Great Park than I do.  But I think that I do know when it’s time to write a story on it.  That time would be today, one day before the ambitious plans for Orange County’s more natural and outdoorsy version of San Diego’s Balboa Park are scuttled and the large open space very near the geographic center of Orange County turns into, for the most part, another north Irvine housing development plus a golf course.  (And, of course, plus toxic waste.  Let’s not forget about that!)

Two sets of stories caught my attention in writing this one — three from this month’s OC Political blog and three from the LA Times, one of the latter stretching back to 2009.

1. Chris Emami’s “Lalloway Trilogy”

Emami’s “Lalloway Trilogy” begins with Republican Councilmember Jeff Lalloway voting with Democrats Larry Agran and Beth Krom at the Irvine City Council’s Nov. 12 meeting to delay a vote on a development agreement on the Great Park.  As I’ve expressed, I’m a great fan of OCPolitical, as I believe it provides (usaully) clearly expressed insight into the mainstream thinking of the Orange County GOP.  So this seems to have been that thinking:

After months of negotiation with a development partner, the Irvine City Council had the opportunity last Tuesday to move the Park forward. But, to 688 acres of sports facilities, gardens and wildlife corridor, Republican Councilmember Jeff Lalloway and Democrats Beth Krom and Larry Agran said, “no, not just yet.”

In addition to getting the Orange County Great Park built, the development partner announced that Broadcom was in discussions to move their corporate headquarters to the Great Park, instead of a speculated move to the District in the City of Tustin.

Getting infrastructure at the Great Park, keeping thousands of high-paying, high-tech jobs in Irvine, fulfilling promises to build a world-class destination for Orange County’s enjoyment. Why is Jeff Lalloway stalling? The development deal will expire at the November 26th City Council meeting. With virtually no development fees left to build the Park, this is the last, best and only hope to fulfill the promise of the Orange County Great Park.

In other words: this was a very hard sell on Lalloway to get with the program.

Part two of the trilogy contained Emami’s attack on former Irvine majority’s attempts to build the Great Park and more waxing poetic on the glories that the new developer would offer, and reassurances that Lalloway had sought a two week delay “solely to have two more weeks to iron out the plan details.”  Behold the knives:

Irvine has already spent a quarter of a billion dollars and a decade since Measure W stopped the El Toro Airport in favor of the Great Park. What do they have to show for it?  A giant orange balloon, a merry-go-round, a farm, an art display, and some soccer fields, ponds, and lawns.

The proposal by developer FivePoint Communities to build the Great Park would be a giant step forward. FivePoint Communities proposes to build 65% of the Great Park with a huge sports park, an 18-hole golf course, an agricultural site, and a woodland “Bosque” area.

What does FivePoint Communities want in exchange for these gifts to the City of Irvine? The right to build more homes on its own land. FivePoint Communities would only build homes on land that FivePoint already owns. This is a property rights issue. Protecting private property rights are a core principle of conservatism. FivePoint should have the right to build on its own land. It wishes to build an additional 4,600 homes on its own land and will construct a substantial proportion of the Great Park for the City of Irvine.

This seems like a very reasonable trade: FivePoint can build more homes on its own land and will build nearly 2/3 of the Great Park for the City of Irvine.

The boldface above is mine.  This, once again, represents the governing consensus in Orange County — prevalent among Republicans and enough prominent Democrats to deem in “bipartisan” — that development is good, period, and government should get out of its way.  In summary, “we get goodies and they build housies.”

There are two problems with that: (1) How good are the goodies?  (2) How bad are the housies — for the rest of us?

Frankly, for the most part, the goodies seem sort of sucky, from the standpoint of the intention of Great Park designer Ken Smith to “serve the larger population of Orange County, the diverse population of Orange County.”  Let’s see if you can spot the flaws:

  1. 65% of the Great Park
  2. with a huge sports park
  3. an 18-hole golf course
  4. an agricultural site, and
  5. a woodland “Bosque” area.

Anytime anyone says that they’re going to give you 65% of any piece of property, you had best check it very carefully, because (as we Northerners have found with Coyote Hills) that 65% may include the parts which are not particularly usable for the purposes you desired.  So let’s have a look:

“A huge sports park.”  Why?  Did people vote for this?  Did Choi and Shea campaign on this last fall?  And is this sports park — not exactly in keeping with the wilderness nature park on which the public had been sold — going to produce events that “serve the diverse larger population of Orange County”?  Or are we looking at a football stadium with no guarantee of a team, enormous traffic if one is placed there, and prices that render it unaffordable to most of the public?  Uhmmm — is this going to go to a referendum?

“An 18-hole golf course.”  Whyyyyy?  Do we not have enough for the wealthy to do in South County?  Are we having trouble attracting wealthy people to the area?  Do we really need to devote a huge tract of land to something that is (1) environmentally irresponsible, unless maybe they’re planning to use Irvine’s “plastic grass” to save on water and (2) functionally available to only a small portion of the population?

“An agriculatural site.”  OK.  The Great Park already has organic farming, of course — although maybe I shouldn’t say of course because most people in the area don’t seem to know what’s going on there beyond the balloon, because the citizen outreach has (ironically, given the amount spent on PR) sucked — and one wonders if the site is destined to become the breadbasket that had once been envisioned or perhaps something a bit more corporate.

“A bosque.”  This is probably the best in the lot — and in type (although my bet is not in extent) is a holdover from the initial plan.  A “bosque,” as almost none of us (me included until the past week) know, is an oasis-like woodlands near a river in an otherwise arid or semi-arid area.  Here, go play on Wikipedia:

Bosque is the name for areas of gallery forest found along the riparian flood plains of stream and river banks in the southwestern United States. It derives its name from the Spanish word for woodlands.

In the predominantly arid or semi-arid southwestern United States, the bosque is an oasis-like ribbon of green vegetation, often canopied, that only exists near rivers, streams, or other water courses. The most notable bosque is a 200 miles (320 km)-long ecosystem along the middle Rio Grande in New Mexicothat extends from Santa Fe past Socorro including the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

The five most common trees in the bosque habitat are generally smaller species which rarely exceed 10 metres (33 ft), such as mesquite. Larger cottonwood trees are also common in some areas. Because there is only a single canopy layer and because the tree species found in the bosque are generallydeciduous, a wide variety of shrubs, grasses, and other understory vegetation is also supported. Desert hackberryblue palo verdegraythorn (Condalia lycioides)Mexican elder (Sambucus mexicana ), “virgin’s bower“, and “Indian root” all flourish in the bosque. The habitat also supports a large variety oflichens. For a semi-arid region, there is extraordinary biodiversity at the interface of the bosque and surrounding desert ecosystems.

So — will it be a Big Bosque or a Bitty Bosque?  This would — if it’s accessible and detoxified and especially if it has free parking and admission — be a wonderful addition to Orange County, along the lines of what the original plan entailed.

So, those are the benefits.  What about the costs?

Those costs include: greater use of water, power, police and fire resources, increased traffic for the rest of us to enjoy (10,000 homes — or even just 5,000 additional ones, isn’t peanuts), the burdens of which largely fall on the rest of the people in the area (or, for County-provided services — all of us.)  So calling the golf course and sports complex “a gift to the county” is a little misleading — much like my giving Chris Emami a valuable and exotic giant alligator for his home might well technically fit the definition of a “gift” — but the care and feeding and control of it may make it seem like a bit less of one than might be supposed.  (Beware of developers bearing gifts!)

And as for FivePoint Communities being able to just use its own land: THEY BOUGHT THE LAND WITHOUT ENTITLEMENTS!  If the land has come with the entitlements they now seek, they would have paid much more for it.  So this is not just a matter of property rights, it’s a matter of giving people a value-enhancing benefit of their land that they did not pay for and had no legal right to expect.  Does that seem different to you, Dear Reader?

On to part three of Emami’s trilogy:

Until the 2012 election, Republicans had not had a majority on the Irvine City Council since 2000.  The reason Republicans won is Republicans ran promising to develop the Great Park. …

No, not really.  That overlooks (1) the vicious mailers put out in Irvine accusing Larry Agran of essentially being in league with child molesters, (2) the vicious smear campaign offered by the OC Weekly falsely trying to tie Agran to having entice Katherine Daigle into the Mayor’s race and (my bet is) falsely trying him to some ill-specified and now apparently forgotten corruption involving the District Attorney, and (3) godawful amounts of anonymous money coming in from the East Coast to fund attacks on him.  Go check the articles from these days.  Few people were talking about the Great Park as an issue.  I was one of the ones who WAS, arguing that if Irvine elected a Republican majority, it would do pretty much exactly what you see happening now.  The public did not vote for a fancy golf course!

One of the most impressive things about this proposal is that FivePoint is willing to give up 1,000,000 square feet of commercial space to build additional 4,600 homes.  Reducing the commercial space ensures that there is no increase in traffic from the additional homes.  Additionally, FivePoint proposes to develop most of the Great Park.  This proposal is an incredible deal for Irvine, and really a great deal for Orange County as a whole.  We will finally have the Great Park that the voters expected when Orange County residents voted to end the El Toro Airport in 2002.

Last I recall, Irvine still has a glut of commercial space, that giving up 1,000,000 square feet of it may be more of a relief for FivePoints than a concession.  But saying that this means “no increase of traffic” from 4600 additional homes?  Chris, with all fondness and due respect, where did you get the idea that homes don’t bring traffic so long as they aren’t built next to commercial space?  In act, if these homes are built without nearby shops, restaurants, and such, you’d expect to see more traffic because people have to go drive somewhere further away to get them.

Seriously — is there some sort of study that says that 4600 new homes mean no additional new traffic?  I would love to read it.

Finally, Emami quotes Lalloway’s editorial in the Register thusly:

I am excited to be able to vote in favor of this project. I look forward to casting that vote.

However, at the time that this complex proposal was brought before the council, it was clear from both the city staffs report and their presentations that they had time to conduct only a partial analysis of the impacts of this offer. In short, more work was required. In fact, the staff report highlights several areas that require “further discussion” and that their review is still a “work in progress.”

Areas requiring more analysis include such critical components as the design features, construction progress, and potential city liabilities. Separately, there are significant policy issues concerning public access to the park, as well as operating and maintaining the park amenities.

And … I’m sure that that will have been accomplished by tomorrow afternoon, right?  I haven’t checked the agenda packet (if it’s online) — is this “tidying up” work already posted somewhere?  Or is it going to be a SURPRISE, calling for a snap decision from the Council?  We’ll know, I suppose, in a day and a half.

2. The Take from the Times

Paloma Esquival, an Orange County correspondent for the LA Times, has been following the Great Park story for literally years.  I’ll quote first from her “Is Great Park a soaring vision or just hot air?” —  a story of hers from 2009 giving a sense of where things stood at that time.  I’m leaving much out so it’s worth reading the whole thing.

If all goes according to plan, [Designer Ken] 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.

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.

The bulk of the land is still unusable. Lennar Corp., the builder whose developments were supposed to fund the park, hasn’t built anything. In August, Irvine revised agreements with Lennar that would introduce more than 1,000 additional housing units around the park and allow the city to build a police station, hotel, restaurants and retail stores within the park, some of which would help generate money.

In April, park leaders allocated $61 million for a 500-acre development plan that would include a long-awaited sports park but would only begin creating a framework on most of those acres. After that, park officials will need more money.

Smith is savvy enough to know his biggest challenge is persuading the public that his project is worth building. But the missteps in management and appearance of excess have left many wary.

Now, Smith hopes to persuade park leaders to build in bits and pieces, enough so people visit and demand more.

Similarly, Smith pushed for the helium balloon even as the bulk of the base remained unusable. For critics, the balloon is a symbol of hyperbolic promise gone unmet. For supporters, it is the vision of possibility.

Here’s part of what Esquival reported two weeks ago — again, there’s plenty more at that link:

On Tuesday, the Irvine City Council is expected to vote on whether to approve a plan proposed by a developer to build about 688 acres of the park. Gone is the long, winding canyon that was described in the park’s master plan as a “beautiful oasis — a place to wander and daydream.” In its place could be a 188-acre golf course. Gone is the largely centralized parking that would have forced people out of their cars to wander around the park. In its place, parking lots scattered throughout.

“They really are developing something that isn’t creating a great public park in any way,” Smith said. “It’s just sort of cheap and fast and takes up a lot of space.”

The proposal includes an approximately 188-acre golf course, a 176-acre sports park, a 178-acre wildlife corridor, 72 acres of agricultural land, and 75 acres of woodland and a small upper canyon.  Haddad says it would be a well-thought-out park that would serve the community and, despite what Smith says, be consistent with the designer’s master plan. The proposal also provides for operations and maintenance through 2023.

“The golf course is a very easy thing,” [Smith] said. “It very easily takes up a lot of space and doesn’t cost a lot of money and creates a very great front lawn for the housing units. But a golf course is … a very limited public that it’s providing a park for.”

And finally, here’s a portion of the Times’s editorial on the subject:

The Great Park’s ambitious plan was stalled by the Great Recession. It was further hobbled in 2012 when California eliminated redevelopment agencies and took $1.4 billion in property taxes for its own general fund that would have otherwise funded the project.

So, it’s understandable that some frustrated Irvine leaders have embraced a proposal by developer FivePoint Communities to construct 688 acres of the park in exchange for nearly doubling the number of houses the firm can build on the park’s perimeter. The company has approval to put 4,900 homes there, but wants 4,600 more.

Under the proposal, the city of Irvine would get the bulk of the park, at the developer’s expense. And the work would be done in a matter of years instead of decades.

But it wouldn’t be the Great Park. The FivePoint plan is a more conventional, scaled-down version of the Great Park’s master plan. It would include more sports fields, including national tournament-level facilities. It scraps the project’s centerpiece: a 2-mile-long, 60-foot-deep man-made canyon that planners envisioned as “a place to wander and daydream.” The canyon would be replaced by a 188-acre municipal golf course — where, presumably, wandering and daydreaming would not be allowed, due to safety concerns.

Does Orange County really need another golf course to be used by a few, in a park that was envisioned to serve the many? In their rush to get the Great Park developed and to deal with the undeniable financial challenges, Irvine city council members could end up squandering the opportunity to build something truly special. They should demand more of FivePoint Communities. The developer and the city should go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan closer to the ambition of the original project.

That’s the background of where we stand.  Next, in a separate piece, I’ll put forth some of my own ideas — some grand ideas that I hope may explain why the Irvine City Council can do something better tomorrow than give in to the entreaties of a developer.  Originally it was going to go here, but I don’t want to bury it.  That’ll be up in a few minutes.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)