Will Obama's Stimulus Plan Help Make the OC Great Park a Reality?

Calling the action "momentous," the Great Park Corp. Board of Directors voted unanimously today to recommend the Irvine City Council adopt the Great Park Design Studio's Comprehensive Park Plan, the final planning piece required before the building phase can begin--as soon as March 20--on the ambitious, mixed-use park on 1,350 acres of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

Now all the directors have to do is figure out how to pay for it.

To that end, director Miguel Pulido, who is Santa Ana's mayor, suggested positioning the $1.7 billion park to tap into federal dollars that are part of the stimulus plan President Barack Obama signed this week.

Adopting a phrase heard often around Washington, D.C., these days, director Sukhee Kang, Irvine's mayor, claimed the park is ready to turn federal dollars into immediate projects that can create jobs now. "This project is by far the best shovel-ready project in the country in the 21st century right now," said Kang, who, referring to the plan's presentation added, "Beautiful pictures are one thing. Now is the time to really roll up our sleeves and work to get that money."

"I think this is excellent timing going from one phase to another, and it could coincide with what's going on in the rest of the country," said Pulido, who advised the staff to determine "what the potential pots of money are" and to "work as a team to identify this." He warned, "I think this is going to be like a tsunami. It's going to come and it's going to go. Many cities that do not react closely enough will discover it'll be gone." However, board chairman Larry Agran, an Irvine city councilman and former mayor, wanted it made clear that the park has the resources to go it alone for initial building should state and federal dollars fail to materialize. It's been estimated the city has less than $100 million currently set aside, but more is promised as future residential and commercial development around the park generates city fees. "I don't want anyone to lose sight of the fact that we have our very own substantial resources," said Agran, who viewed stimulus money as something that can accelerated park plans that are already in place.

"This is not a far-off thing," Agran said of park building. His point was amplified before the comprehensive plan's presentation, when city/Great Park planning manager Glen Worthington indicated 37 old base buildings have been demolished and his department is considering taking down up to five more by the beginning of July. Materials are being recycled or reused in the park, he said.

Master designer Ken Smith then guided directors through the design and engineering scheme with a virtual tour of park projected on a big screen and television monitors inside the Irvine City Council chambers. Some Sims-style images were accompanied by the sounds of music, running water and people talking to give viewers a sense of a sports park, wildlife area and agriculture elements.

There are many green features to the plan, which calls for sustainable infrastructure, including renewable energy generation, non-polluting shuttles, connections to mass transit, water reclamation and natural water treatment systems and the recycling of abandoned runways to build a variety of park features. Among Smith's eye-catchers were a lake filled with recycled water that paddle boats people rent will ply and a large shade structure bridge that spans an entire the canyon and provides a dramatic entrance to a botanical garden. "This will be one of the icons of California," Smith promised. The canyon will connect to a regional bird and butterfly corridor that extends from Mexico up to Northern California, and other areas will feature man-made natural habitats for several species.

"I have said many times that one does not build a park, one grows a park," Smith said. "The Comprehensive Park Design allows us to begin growing elements of the park right now and create additional elements in the future with full confidence that everything will fit together and create a wonderful experience for park visitors."

"This is not your grandmother's park," said director Walkie Ray, who hails from the building and real estate industry. "This is unlike anything I've seen." The plan reflects the county's rapid evolution into a modern metropolis, said Ray, who added, "it is so different that, frankly, it makes Golden Gate Park look banal. I like it. No guts, no glory. I think we're heading for glory with this project." The plan endorsed today will allow future planners to complete the park, probably in a generation, according to Ray, who sees no problem is using "other people's money" to bring the plan to fruition so long as "we don't lose our soul."

Picking up on Ray's comments, director Steven Choi, an Irvine councilman, hoped to see a park "before we all die," which elicited chuckles from his fellow board members, who are used to grumblings that a lot of time and money has gone into park planning with little park to show for it. Director Michael Pinto, who founded the Laguna Canyon Foundation, defended the intense planning. "We have to have a reverence for this planet," he said. "This is more than just building something. . . . There has to be a recognition that we need to preserve what we inherited."

Having emerged from the divisive battle over reuse of El Toro, which was long envisioned to become an international commercial airport following the base's 1999 decommissioning, the Great Park could not help but be mired in controversy ever since. There have been charges of secrecy, cronyism, bloated bureaucracy, toxic cover-ups, you-name-it. Of late has been much criticism of how long it is taking to remove base buildings and runways and have anything that resembles a traditional park--like permanent benches, restrooms and ball fields--open to the public. Currently there is the park's "iconic" balloon ride, a small entertainment area in an old hangar and a small preview park that is essentially a temporary open grass area with some benches and shaded tables. Some surrounding land is also leased for RV storage, recycling operations and other temporary uses.  

March 5 will make the 7th anniversary of Measure W, the ballot initiative county voters passed allowing Irvine to convert the former base into the Great Park and surrounding development to pay for the park. In addition to the mostly temporary amenties mentioned above, the only thing that has been added since passage of the measure is a temporary ice rink.

The board voted 7-0 for the plan, with director Christina Shea, an Irvine councilwoman, and Pulido, who had to leave early, absent. The panel then broke for an afternoon break before reassembling in the afternoon to discuss a park building schedule.


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