Great Pork

Irvine Mayor Larry Agran has presented his plan for a Great Park at El Toro, and the Navy Department and county Board of Supervisors have said they love it.

But it's likely no one is as happy as Irvine Co. chairman Don Bren.

Agran's plan does everything he promised and more. It commits the city to the creation of a 2,900-acre park with golf courses, sports fields and meadows. It also leaves Bren—the state's largest developer—in a position to capture the windfall rise in land values that will follow construction of the Great Park.

Agran might have ringed the 4,700-acre base with land leased to developers and used lease revenues to build and maintain the park forever. As the park evolved, the value of nearby land would rise—generating increasing income for park construction and maintenance.

Instead, Agran surrendered the park's valuable borders to the Irvine Co. His plan would roll out a park right to the front doors of proposed Irvine Co. developments on two sides of the park. The Irvine Co. already runs the massive Spectrum research park on a third side of the proposed park; a fourth side is dedicated to a nature preserve that runs into the Cleveland National Forest.

That kind of urban planning represents a multibillion-dollar subsidy to the Irvine Co., experts suggest. Jeff Lacy of the planning thinktank Center for Rural Massachusetts has concluded that “the home-buyer, speaking in dollar-terms through the marketplace, appears to have demonstrated a greater desire for a home with access and proximity to permanently protected land than for one located on a bigger lot, but without the open-space amenity.”

A 1999 report by the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land used data from across the country to conclude that “open space conservation is a one-time investment that can boost property values and swell tax coffers long after the land is paid for.”

“Open space created [at the El Toro base] would definitely benefit the properties within a close proximity,” said Scott Bollens, a UC Irvine professor of urban planning. “Developers operate with the strong assumption that open space increases the value of residential properties.”

And not just residential, but commercial property as well. As far back as 1873, New York Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted trumpeted the increase in property values his massive park produced in surrounding Manhattan—some $4.4 million in additional annual property taxes. Olmsted's gusher persuaded officials in Denver, Kansas City and Minneapolis to build similar parks, and a late-19th-century park-building bonanza tore across the country.

Similarly, a 1991 study of the 1,294-acre Pennypack Park in Philadelphia shows land values around the park 33 percent above the city average. A thousand feet out, that hike is still 9 percent, and even half a mile away, property values are 4.2 percent higher than average.

Under Agran's plan, one man will collect on that higher value: Bren. He's the guy who owns the land north and west of the base that makes up Planning Areas 5, 6, 8 and 9—the so-called Northern Sphere. It's farmland now, but Bren wants to build more than 12,000 homes there and 11 million square feet of commercial space.

Such immense development will make Bren far richer than he is today. It will boost Irvine's population by nearly 180,000 people. It will add traffic and pollution. It will do nothing to fund park development. Any increase in property tax revenue will go, as all such revenue goes, to the county.

And right now it's breezing through Irvine City Hall without opposition.

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