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

The remark was a subtle reference not just to the city of Bell (a 2.6-square-mile municipality in Los Angeles County that gave its city manager $1.5 million in annual compensation), but also to the Great Park. For nearly half a decade, Agran’s government agencies have given Arnold Forde, Agran’s longtime political consultant and dining partner, a lucrative taxpayer-funded public-relations-consulting contract. The councilman angrily recoils in ostentatious displays of contempt when people question his benchmark-free PR deal with Forde.

But, really, have you ever heard of city officials handing a no-bid, $100,000-per-month contract year after year to a small, local PR shop for a government park that does not exist?

In case Forde needs help spinning the public about the wonders of Agran’s Great Park operation, he can get assistance from two other bureaucrats Agran employs full-time at taxpayer expense: a “media services coordinator” (total annual compensation: $98,106) and a “public information officer” (total annual compensation: $112,579). And if none of those experts can handle the PR task, Agran put an additional $80,000 into an earmarked “contingency contract” for the park’s 2010-2011 budget.

Lalloway: Agran has "wasted so much money and so much time"
Beth Stirnaman
Lalloway: Agran has "wasted so much money and so much time"
Shea is one of Agran's opponents on the city council and park board
Beth Stirnaman
Shea is one of Agran's opponents on the city council and park board

“It’s an amazing situation, isn’t it?” says Lalloway, who, if he joins the council, automatically becomes a Great Park board member. “A guy like Arnold Forde can collect that type of contract and not be required to achieve anything specific. As far as we know, he simply wakes up every month and collects $100,000.

“We’ve got a situation where the council majority are more interested in handing out no-bid contracts to their friends than building a Great Park,” he adds. “That’s just wrong. They’ve wasted so much money and so much time.”

Internal Great Park documents obtained by the Weekly show that in the upcoming year, Agran wants to spend $9,848,714 more on government consultants, $4,019,225 for park staff salaries and benefits, $1,735,000 for entertainment, $1,025,000 for a local law firm, and $928,751 for free balloon rides.

Two other figures to contemplate:

Great Park administrative costs (2008-2011): $56 million.

Great Park construction costs (2000-2010): $0.

Despite those startling figures, park CEO Michael D. Ellzey concluded in a recent memo that the park board had just completed “a rewarding year.”

(For more budgetary figures, see "Money Bags.")

*     *     *

Let’s return to 2002. Agran’s saintly progressive image is still intact. Lefties love him. The political right despises him but grudgingly admits the man’s prominent role in doing what once seemed impossible: reversing two county elections that supported conversion of the Marine base into Southern California’s newest international airport. The proposed airport’s supporters included heavyweights such as businessman George Argyros, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Spain; as well as the city of Newport Beach; a majority of the county’s supervisors; and influential business-lobbying groups, all of whom argued that John Wayne Airport was inadequate to satisfy the region’s air-transportation needs in the near future.

Agran and other anti-airport leaders offered an alternative to a massive airport in the heart of residential intensive Irvine. They sold voters on the alternative idea of a “Great Park,” where a remarkable 84 percent of the old base—“over 4,000 acres . . . six square miles!”—would be dedicated permanently to “parkland and open space and for recreational and educational purposes.” Real-estate development would be allowed on only 16 percent of the property, Agran claimed, while noting proudly that he’s “a man of his word.” He used glossy images that depicted kids playing soccer, couples sailing on a lake and, no joke, well-coiffed old folks smelling roses.

In 2002, Agran wrote that a victory that year for Measure W, the pro-park initiative, would mean “the first phases of the Great Park can start to emerge within the next few years—and [at] very little cost.” He went on to describe how easy it would be to convert the base immediately into a public benefit by “quickly” expanding college-campus educational opportunities, creating “hiking, biking and riding trails . . . a nature preserve . . . and dozens of amateur athletic fields—especially soccer and softball fields for Orange County youth.”

Agran added, “Bringing people back to El Toro will help create a sense of community that will be key to the Great Park’s planning, growth and success. These are the things that can happen on the ground at El Toro within the next few years.”

He then concluded, “Good planning creates personal and community wealth.”

Always on the side of wealth, the Orange County Business Journal chimed in, calling Agran’s plan “conceptually brilliant.”

It worked: 58 percent of OC voters chose the park over the international airport. The victory made Agran even more bold.

In 2003, Agran again guaranteed that erecting a Great Park could be done swiftly. According to a city document I’ve kept, he asserted that “all backbone infrastructure” at the park would be completed within 24 months. He also said construction of the sports park, drainage corridors and wildlife corridor would take no longer than 18 months.

But there was still the pesky issue of getting the United States Navy, formal owner of the base, to relinquish control. The Navy decided in 2005 to auction 3,700 acres of the site to the highest bidder in a package that assured the city of Irvine 1,200 acres for a public park that would be funded, in large part, through a tax on the property’s commercial developer. Florida-based housing giant Lennar, operating with other Wall Street investors through an entity called Heritage Fields LLC, won the bidding at $649.5 million and agreed to pay Irvine $200 million to construct the adjoining public park and, later, $201 million more for joint infrastructure. The company and the city signed a 2005 development agreement that permitted 3,400 new homes.

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