The Great Park: Hot Air?

Thanks to Larry Agran, a few people have gotten very rich from the county's proposed $1.2 billion, still-not-built park

Stand dead-center on the 2-mile runways at mothballed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, like I did recently, and look around. You’ll see the past: long-abandoned, dilapidated structures—massive jet hangars, an aircraft-control tower, barracks and assorted military-support buildings whose origins trace back to the 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s as if time has forgotten the place Lee Harvey Oswald once called home. Listen for evidence of modern life: Though you’re surrounded in the distance by some of the busiest highways in the world, the soundtrack is the steady whistle of an inexhaustible breeze. Rabbits and squirrels—apparently unaccustomed to sharing these 4,700 acres abandoned by the Pentagon 11 years ago—dart into ubiquitous patches of tall, rust-colored weeds beneath a royal-blue sky made enormous by the flat terrain. It’s impossible not to feel awe.

Like Orange County, this property—North America’s largest lima-bean field before World War II—is a monument to contradictions. It’s ironic that a spot where men trained to kill for half a century is, at least by outward appearances, such a peaceful spot now. It’s even more ironic that its tranquil appearance is an illusion. Even today, this land is steeped in conflict. Today’s combatants don fine suits and chow on $29 plates of spaghetti while directing the moves of platoons of public-relations flacks and lawyers.

One last irony: Like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public is oblivious to the vicious tug-of-war over this soil. The Irvine property, which could play a dominant, positive role in Southern California’s future, as well as make or break the reputations of a number of politicians and real-estate developers, remains in a puzzling limbo.

Jason Edmiston
Agran's 2002 promise that put 
him in control of more than $1 billion
Agran's 2002 promise that put him in control of more than $1 billion

You can thank the current inactivity on the manipulations of Irvine’s most-powerful politician: City Councilman Larry Agran, the 1992 Democratic Party presidential candidate who controls the city’s 3-2 council majority and thus the conversion of the Marine base into a public/private partnership called the Great Park. Agran—the county’s most-prominent progressive figure until 2005, when all local news outlets here documented his penchant for secrecy, half-truths and reckless spending—sounds defensive when asked about the continual delays.

“I don’t know where the idea materialized out there that somehow we would have the great metropolitan park developed full-scale within a matter of a few years,” Agran told The Orange County Register in May. “Nobody ever promised that. . . .”

Hmm, I wonder who wrote the Aug. 4, 2002, opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times with the headline, “A Park to Surpass Other Great Parks—Speedily”? In it, Agran wrote, “We expect the sports park, with at least 50 soccer fields, baseball diamonds and other facilities for field sports to be built and available for public use within three years”—which would be 2005.

Two years earlier, Agran’s political machine sold $25 T-shirts reading, “The Great Park . . . established 2000,” and in fund-raising pitches, he tied his candidacy to construction of the park. His 2002 campaign literature guaranteed voters a completed park “every bit as beautiful as San Diego’s Balboa Park . . . sooner rather later.” That year, I also repeatedly watched him promise in speeches, “This time next year [fall 2003], we’ll be having jackhammer parties at El Toro to tear up the runways and begin construction of the Great Park!”

In 2003, Agran claimed during a race for mayor that the Great Park “is 90 percent done,” and his allies proclaimed, “Mission accomplished!”

By his own promises, Agran is now 120 months late and counting. The jackhammer parties haven’t materialized. The runways remain intact. Indeed, except for creating an impressive, if expensive, master design plan, not a single major-project goal has been achieved. There is no park—no soccer fields, no educational facilities, no lake, no garden, no wildlife park, no museum, no cemetery or war memorial—and yet he and his second-fiddle allies on the council, Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang, have already allocated or spent an extraordinary amount: more than $220 million.

Where has all that money gone? Why hasn’t it been used to launch park construction? Can a lifelong politician without any business experience continue to divert public attention from the warts of his operation by offering free balloon rides over the old Marine base?

*     *     *

Jeff Lalloway is a stocky, gregarious 48-year-old Irvine family-law attorney and New Jersey native who is unafraid to admit he watches MTV reality show Jersey Shore. A father of two young kids, he’s also a city finance commissioner who has announced he’s seeking a seat on the Irvine City Council.

“I’m not a Larry Agran-hater,” he says. “But I don’t admire his policies and tactics.”

Based on history, Agran will invariably attempt to smear Lalloway as anti-Great Park and a conservative nut. Never mind that his chief concerns are reasonable: aiding the city’s financially troubled public-school system, increasing government transparency and accountability, exposing wasteful city spending—and building a Great Park.

“I’m a regular guy,” Lalloway says. “I’m also a Republican, but I’m not an ideological loon. I want Irvine and the county to be a better place. When I used to live in Philadelphia, I ate lunch all the time right in view of the Liberty Bell. It might sound corny, but we’ve lost touch with the basics in our country. We’ve created an environment where politicians and their buddies are making all this money, and the rest of us are wondering where it all went.”

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