Photo by Davis BarberReacting to "nay-sayers and pessimists," Irvine Mayor Larry Agran has guaranteed that 59 percent of the former El Toro Marine Air Corps Station will be parkland if his city succeeds in annexing the 4,700-acre property from the county.
"If you want a number, we can put a number on it: 2,800 acres," a feisty Agran said in a March 20 interview.
The mayor bristled at criticism that Measure W—the voter-approved March "Great Park" initiative—doesn't legally guarantee anything but undefined open space with more commercial and residential development.
"I think Measure W does have guarantees," he said. "There will be a Great Park. The good guys are going to win."
The new promise is significant because Agran and his anti-airport allies previously refused to commit themselves to minimum standards for the park's size. If Agran delivers on his 2,800-acre promise, the core of the new public park will be 1,800 acres—more than double the size of New York's acclaimed Central Park and about 400 acres larger than Balboa Park in San Diego.
All parties—from die-heard park advocates to pro-airport Newport Beach businessmen and county supervisors—have long agreed that about 1,000 acres in the northeast part of the base will be reserved as a no-access habitat reserve.
Measure W—which was crafted by Agran and such anti-airport groups as Bill Kogerman's developer-friendly Taxpayers for Responsible Planning (TRP)—killed the county's current aviation plan. But buried in the initiative's pro-park language was this pro-development caveat: "market pressures may ultimately" allow future elected officials to permit the park to "be developed in other ways."
Though obscure, the eyebrow-raising legalese continues to be the focus of a bitter, ongoing public-relations war over the future of El Toro. Pro-airport strategists such as attorney Barbara Lichman argue that Measure W's language proves the Great Park concept was an electoral ruse designed to pave the way for massive commercial development with, perhaps, a mini-park—the kind of uninspiring grass fields already common throughout the county.
Agran—who sees himself as a white knight in public-park planning—recoils bitterly at Lichman's theory.
"It was the only disheartening part of the campaign," he says. "It takes a completely perverse reading of Measure W to say that it's a document that allows for six South Coast Plazas surrounded by an industrial park."
No one has seriously suggested that Measure W might yield six South Coast Plazas. But when pressed, Agran acknowledged there are "powerful forces" working against the Great Park concept; that the initiative was a compromise among a variety of anti-airport groups with wildly varying motives—some of them, such as TRP, directly at odds with a park; and, importantly, that the March countywide election is not binding on Irvine if it gains control of the property.
"Of course, we could go out and annex the land and do something completely different there, but I could also go out and become a cross-dresser," said Agran.
Nothing, of course, legally prohibits the mayor from changing either his sexual preference, his wardrobe or his commitment to "a park twice the size and every bit as beautiful as San Diego's Balboa Park." And that fact worries some park advocates and Agran allies.
"Larry is running on his credentials as an environmentalist from the 1980s," said one longtime Agran supporter. "But he's become much more of a political animal willing to quietly deal behind the scenes with developers. During the airport fight, he's made us very anxious at times."
Much of that anxiety waned during the jubilant South County champagne celebrations of Measure W's victory. Little did the celebrants know a nasty hangover loomed. On March 6—just one day after the election—federal authorities in Washington, D.C., bowed to political pressure from Congressman Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach). On that day, the U.S. Navy, which owns the base, declared that whatever Orange County voters wanted, it might sell the property piecemeal to private developers. Park supporters reached for more aspirin: if implemented, the Navy sale would kill Agran's dream of a tax-free park. Funding that dream hinges on Agran's plan for the city to lease land on the park's perimeter to private developers. Congressman Cox—who is close to the Irvine Co., the county's largest real-estate developer—refused the Weekly's request to explain why he would want to prevent park funding.
Agran says he isn't worried about Cox's privatization plan, which he dismissed as "ideological." He characterized the Navy announcement as an empty "threat." (Navy officials say they will announce their decision on April 23.)
"I don't think the federal government would have that easy a job selling off [El Toro]," Agran said. He pointed out that, among other problems, the base is contaminated by radioactive waste.
If things go the mayor's way during the next several months, Great Park planners in Irvine will be busy "getting the county out of the picture and getting the Navy to work with us; we want to build a relationship with the Navy so they're comfortable working with us." Agran is equally optimistic about the Board of Supervisors' desire to get the hell out of El Toro planning.
But what about critics who worry that Irvine might proceed with rapid, intense development of the abandoned Marine base? Agran says he will sponsor a similar Great Park initiative for the citizens of Irvine. After years of battling the airport, he says, this initiative will finally "lock-in" a huge metropolitan park plan for the land.
"Once we have it clearly annexed and we have a plan sufficiently detailed, then we would take it to the people of Irvine, and it would be ratified," said Agran. "It is our intention to develop the base in a way set down by Measure W . . . or something that closely resembles Measure W."
Longtime observers of the airport/park war are amused by Agran's cautious semantics.
"I think those people who actually believed the campaign rhetoric for the Great Park should watch Larry very closely in the coming months," said airport proponent Rick Reiff, executive editor of the Orange County Business Journal. "Do I believe Larry is one of those who most wants a huge public park? Sure, but the Great Park concept was little more than an effective campaign strategy to kill the airport. A multithousand-acre park is just a pipe dream. It's not going to happen. This whole debate is going to be settled in a backroom deal. There will be huge development there, just like there is throughout the rest of Irvine."
"I want to drive home the point that the work is not done," said Agran. "This is the type of politically risky work we do all the time. There are no guarantees in a reasonably free society."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.