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

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.

Agran (right) can't remember he promised park construction would begin while George W. Bush was in his first term
Christopher Victorio
Agran (right) can't remember he promised park construction would begin while George W. Bush was in his first term
Under Agran's direction, the city promised a Great Park "now" in this 2001 mailer
Under Agran's direction, the city promised a Great Park "now" in this 2001 mailer

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.

Since then, however, Heritage Fields has gained significant post-agreement concessions, including reductions in public open space and the elimination of Agran’s promised golf course, some agricultural fields and cemetery. (Persistent rumors swirl in City Hall that Agran and Lennar reneged on the cemetery pledge because of the fear that potential homebuyers will object to living near burial grounds.)

The company now has the city’s blessing to build an additional 1,600 homes, but look for that number to drastically increase in coming years. According to multiple sources, Krom, who is running for Congress as an environmentalist while she occupies a council seat, has already hinted she’s willing to almost triple the original amount of homes to be built at the Great Park to 10,000.

“Larry has a history of not keeping his promises,” says councilwoman and Great Park board director Christina Shea. “And he’s giving Lennar whatever they want. It’s embarrassing.”

As long as Agran’s majority can thwart a public uprising about his disingenuous past promises, the boost in housing is beneficial to the developer and city officials. Every new home that is built increases profit for Heritage Fields LLC and gives Agran a new source for tax dollars. (Because he has promised to not raise taxes for the project, he calls government revenue from the new homes “tax increments.”) The downturn in the housing market, however, has left the company unwilling to begin construction.

The situation could grow worse. There’s a chance that Heritage Fields LLC won’t have the money to either build their housing project or contribute to the Great Park any time soon. Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Association is suing the city of Irvine and Heritage Fields for committing fraud pertaining to the elimination of a plan for the $20 million cemetery on the property. It would have been the first burial grounds for the city.

Forest Lawn, represented by Texas powerhouse law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, claims the developer reneged on a 73-acre deal with the behind-the-scenes cooperation of the park board. Lawyers for Heritage claim there was never a deal. But if a pending Orange County civil jury decides otherwise, the developer could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, if not more, in damages.

The potential loss of the revenue stream from the developer underscores the faultiness of Agran’s plan, according to Shea. She says the need for Great Park funds is now urgent.

“During the next two years, according to Larry’s plan, we’re supposed to raise $400 million for the park,” says Shea. “It’s absurd. It won’t happen. As usual, though, Larry is using his smoke and mirrors, and park staff is scared to death to say anything that might anger him.”

Only “about $20 million” is left in unallocated funds, she says. And all there is to show for it is an orange balloon, some trees planted in boxes in an otherwise-empty lot and some rather wealthy consultants who struck gold because of their ties to Agran.

“We paid $46 million for a detailed design for the park that did not include the old massive runways,” Shea said. “Now, Larry wants the runways to remain. He claims it’s because he wants to honor aviation history.” She laughs heartily at this. “But I think the real reason is how much toxic contamination we’d find there if we dug them up.”

Shea adds, “Larry is the king of spin, but he has mismanaged this whole project. I’m worried that unless we can turn it around, the public is never going to get what was promised. That’s really sad. We can do better.”

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