Amid much hoopla and speechifying, not much great happening with the Great Park
The sight of the big orange balloon tethered to the grounds of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station brings to mind The Wizard of Oz. Inside the gondola, 400 feet in the air, the nearly untouched runways below resemble the yellow brick road if you squint just right. Then, when Larry Agran speaks, it’s obvious who’s playing the title role in this extended metaphor.
Agran, the Irvine city councilman who has pulled the levers on the most successful political machine in town for decades, has a long history of motivating his minions, making them believe the impossible is possible. This is a guy who tried to vault directly from Irvine mayor to U.S. president—and who still has true believers convinced Bill Clinton stole the race from him.
Fantasies aside, one cannot discount Agran’s ability to beat long odds: In 2002 he led a successful insurgency against the wicked witches of Orange County, stopping them from turning the decommissioned air base into a civilian airport, and instead transforming the 4,700 acres of land into a mix of residential, business and open space in the middle of Orange County. Anchoring it all would be the Great Park.
As the Great Park Corporation chairman, Agran delivered an upbeat State of the Great Park address on July 10. The speech was televised live on Irvine Community Television 30 and drew spontaneous applause from the crowd of some 200 people packed into the Irvine City Council chambers. But all was not as it seemed. After the meat of his speech, Agran introduced—for the cameras—nearly everyone in the room, most affiliated in some way with the Great Park, with the vast majority of those drawing paychecks from it.
This was just one of several staged PR events in Great Parkland last week. There was Wednesday’s media picnic tied to the opening of a five-acre Preview Park and re-launch of a hot-air balloon attraction (which had closed temporarily for safety inspections over what Agran called a “baseless complaint.”) Cheerleading continued the following morning in the council chambers, where the corporation board held its regular monthly meeting.
Rah-rah-rahing was also heard at the next evening’s Great Park Conservancy party in Hangar 244, adjacent to the Preview Park and soon to become a hot Orange County nightspot, according to the corporation’s hired entertainment consultants. Sounds of sis-boom-bah crescendoed at the July 12 “Festival of Flight,” which officially opened the Preview Park to the public. Free Friday night dances, Saturday night concerts and balloon rides, balloon rides, balloon rides will continue through the end of summer.
Once the dust settled from the activity and positivity swirling around the future park site, questions remained.
Ballparks? Museums? One stinking swing set? Ever? Don’t worry, we were told, they are coming. Someday. Meanwhile, enjoy this wowtastic slide show by Great Park master designer Ken Smith. But that just begged an even peskier question: How is Irvine going to come up with the billions and billions it will take to fulfill its grand ambitions?
No prob, said the great and powerful Agran.
“I can proudly report that the Great Park’s fiscal condition is excellent,” he said to loud applause on July 10. The park’s money flow, he continued, “is diversified and growing,” and is producing greater “streams of revenue than any other comparable public use in the country.”
Before anyone could think of a comparable public use in the country, Agran reminded them of the $200 million in development fees paid by the now-troubled housing development company Lennar, which shelled out $649.5 million for the base three years ago, then immediately deeded 1,347 acres of land to Irvine for the future Great Park.
Agran talked of an additional $201 million coming from Lennar for “backbone facilities to finish the park,” of “hundreds of millions of dollars” being secured for the park by the City of Irvine’s Redevelopment Agency, and of the “hundreds of millions of dollars” that will be reaped thanks to a $134 million financing plan entered into by the city, the Redevelopment Agency and the corporation.
Back in the real world, Lennar is rumored to be up for sale and is in ongoing talks to renegotiate its original development deal. The $134 million three-way has been called a “sham” by one of Agran’s fellow corporate board members, Councilwoman Christina Shea. (The redevelopment board is made up of the city council, which also holds the majority seats on the corporation, so the $134 million is like a loan from you to yourself.)
Most tellingly, Christopher Townsend of Townsend Public Affairs—the lobbying firm with offices in Irvine and Sacramento that the corporation pays to court state and federal legislators for government funding—was not exactly Mr. Sunshine when he addressed the corporation board about the 2008-’09 legislative agenda. “I am guardedly optimistic we can prevail,” he said at the regular Great Park meeting immediately before Agran’s address.
Townsend hears from politicians and their staffs that the funding streams are dead now, but that purse strings will (one hopes) loosen after the November presidential election. When Agran suggested competing for state bond funds now, Townsend agreed—then mentioned how the Great Park failed recently to get a chunk of $300 million in bond funds because “the project is still too new” for decision-makers to wrap their heads around.
Agran, who has staked his legacy to the Great Park, seemed unperturbed. It is not bad economic times that harsh his Great Park mellow, it’s the naysayers.
“In this highly charged political year,” he said, “let’s not be deterred by doubters, defeatists and professional pessimists.”
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When the Weekly called Agran’s office later to follow up on exactly who he was talking about, among other things, a spokeswoman responded that Agran said he had no time to answer the Weekly’s questions and that “the speech speaks for itself.”
In other words, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
*A correction was made to this story on July 21, 2008.