No Guarantees

Photo by Myles RobinsonIf you support the idea of a Great Park because you see it as (a) a much-needed public resource and/or (b) a stake through the cold, black heart of the county's proposed El Toro International Airport, please give a round of applause to one of your opponents, attorney Barbara Lichman.

Lichman is one of the airport's most articulate—and occasionally shrillest—boosters. But on KCRW's July 17 Which Way LA? debate on El Toro, she gave backers of the Great Park a huge gift.

In the broadcast's most dramatic moment, Lichman revealed the tactic El Toro supporters will deploy in coming months: she denounced the Great Park Initiative as a Trojan horse for massive commercial and residential development of the abandoned Marine Corps Air Station.

"There will be no park," she stated unequivocally. "Whether or not the people of Orange County vote for it, there will be no park [at El Toro]—not under this initiative."

Lichman was being her normal hyperbolic self, incorrectly insisting that the initiative "allows anything that Irvine wants to put in it." It doesn't. But she's right about one thing: the Great Park Initiative does not guarantee a big public park would be built at El Toro. And it allows future politicians tremendous latitude in approving dubious "park-related" commercial and residential uses for the site.

And Lichman proved not only right but also prophetic: on July 31, Judge James Gray accepted the arguments of airport backers, including Lichman, that the initiative's ballot summary and title did not accurately reflect the commercial development that might take place following passage of the Great Park Initiative. He told the park's backers to throw out the 128,000 signatures they had already gathered and draft a new summary and title.

In fact, the title and summary aren't flawed; the initiative is. That's because park backers inexplicably used the county's pro-development General Plan as the foundation for their Great Park Initiative. The same ambiguous, pro-development planning language that makes up the county General Plan runs throughout the Great Park Initiative. Read that sprawling initiative, and you'll run across language like the following, straight from the General Plan: "Areas identified Open Space (5) are not necessarily committed to permanent open space uses. Certain property within the Open Space category is committed, through public or private ownership, to remain as open space, but other property, due to market pressures to serve a growing County population, may ultimately be developed in other ways."

In other words, we're calling it a park now, but it's possible that vaguely defined "market pressures" may lead future officials to conclude that tract housing and office complexes are more vital than a grand public park.

Such language is scary, which is why Lichman read that passage during the radio debate. "If they really wanted it to stay a park forever, they would have changed that language," Lichman said in a later interview.

Irvine planners and officials say Lichman is dead wrong that the initiative will allow any development on the base. That's because the initiative also designates certain "overlays"—think of them as additional layers of restrictions—that drop over the "Open Space (5)" designation. One of them, called "Open Space Reserve," covers most of the base. According to the initiative, any lands covered by the Open Space Reserve overlay "are permanently preserved as and restricted to open space and open space compatible uses."

Irvine planners and officials say the Open Space Reserve overlay protects the park from open-ended development. "Can you put strip malls in there? I don't see that in the language," said city planner Glen Worthington. "That Open Space Reserve overlay makes clear that this land is for specified park purposes."

Irvine Mayor Larry Agran agreed. "When you designate something Open Space Reserve, people don't let you screw with that," he said. "People are very protective of open space once they know it's there."

But skeptics might also observe that the Great Park Initiative's Open Space Reserve is actually much weaker than the county's General Plan. Modeling the Great Park after such urban parks as New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, they lowered the county's open space reserve standards so that much larger structures (such as museums) and parking lots can be built in the Great Park—structures unusual by the standards of the county's open-space provisions. And in one part of the Marine base—the southern and southwestern portions not covered by the Open Space Reserve overlay—just about anything can and will go: high-tech business parks, high-density housing, movie theaters—almost anything that can be defined as an "entertainment facility" or a facility "built and maintained for public use."

"This allows for future legislative bodies to plan with some flexibility," said Agran, adding that the Great Park includes museums, libraries and various concessions. "Remember that all of the base's 4,700 acres will not be manicured parkland. Can you put in food courts? I guess so—but certainly not a Home Depot. After all, there are commercial activities in New York's Central Park."

But Lichman is right, and park supporters had better listen: search through the initiative's many overlays and designations, and you'll never find a park guarantee. Instead, you'll find phrases—"open-space compatible," "market forces," "entertainment," "public use"—that are so ill-defined that any future government might indeed declare a Home Depot store compatible with open space, economically necessary, entertaining, and open to the public. Such legal vagueness will be the developers' back door.

If you don't think that will happen—if, like Agran, you believe county officials would never mess with "permanently" preserved open space—consider the county's recent action on existing parks. One-third of all county parkland (about 10,000 acres) lacks the sorts of restrictions that would permanently ban development. But county supes have been loath to close that massive loophole, one that has already been exploited by developers. Instead, they've delayed four votes to amend the park deeds and permanently preserve the parks.

A solution? Replace the Great Park Initiative with one that has an iron-clad guarantee that the word "park" means just that: no commercial development can ever take place within its boundaries.


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