No Matter Who Wins, We Do

Cynthia Coad was barely visible over the lectern at the Anaheim Downtown Community Center, but her words were adult-sized. Calling the proposed Great Park “a land grab by the city of Irvine,” the 4th District's diminutive supervisor told 120 locals that the Great Park Initiative was “lacking” and “abhorrent.”

It could have been worse. A written copy of her Aug. 9 remarks shows Coad intended to call the Great Park a “dinosaur of a megapark,” an “attempt to deceive the voters and corrupt the initiative process,” and “untruthful.” She was prepared to say that a previous anti-airport initiative, Measure F, “was disqualified because of its inherent lies.”

Ultimately, the audience never heard any of that. But the gentled-down Coad nevertheless repeated what has become the standard argument against the Great Park: that it will impose huge tax burdens for its construction and upkeep.

It's an argument park proponents could dispel instantly. But that would require redesigning a park that now stands to benefit not only the public but the Irvine Co. as well.

The county's largest private property owner, the Irvine Co., owns most of the land surrounding the abandoned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Think of the base as a square: one side on the northeast is connected to a salient of open space so rugged that it would remain a natural preserve even under the most aggressive development scheme. But the other three sides border Irvine Co. land. The construction of a world-class park at the base would be a windfall for the company, which might reasonably convert its nearby farms and fields into commercial and residential high-rise developments. Given their proximity to the park, those projects could command some of the highest rents in Orange County.

Everybody wants to be next to beauty—and beauty likes to be next to money, which explains Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. It's a fact real-estate agents have understood for more than a century. “Property next to urban open space is worth more than property that is not,” said Deborah Boerner-Ein in a January 1991 article in the journal American Forests.

That principle works for any kind of open space—green belts, golf courses, playgrounds. But the larger and more beautiful the land, the more salutary the effect of open space on property values. 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.

The same economics apply today. According to Boerner-Ein, the 1,294-acre Pennypack Park in Philadelphia raised nearby property values by 33 percent over the city average. A thousand feet out from the park, property values were up 9 percent. Even half a mile away from the park, property values were up 4.2 percent.

It's simple for the public to reap the benefits of this Central Park Effect by ringing the interior of the base with commercial development controlled by a public park authority. Leases to developers who hope to raise office, apartment and condo towers next to a thousand acres of parkland, museums, a performing arts center, gardens and more would generate millions for the park's ongoing construction and maintenance. Far from costing them anything, taxpayers might actually make money on the Great Park.

But at the moment, the Great Park Initiative shows “Educational Park Compatible” uses (which could prove to be almost anything) along the base's southeastern corner only. The rest of the base is set aside as an “Open Space Reserve” that reaches all the way to the base boundaries. Across the streets from these boundaries, it's all Irvine Co., all the time.

With the park designed that way, the real winner is the Irvine Co. And that's probably no accident of cartography. The company is a political powerhouse and has played both sides of the El Toro issue (it ought to be the company's slogan: “No matter who wins, we do”). On the anti-airport side, the Irvine Co. has been a key player from the beginning. Paul Eckles, head of the South County's anti-airport cities group, ETRPA, has observed that any future non-aviation use for El Toro will “fit in with the plans of the county's largest landowner.”

You couldn't ignore them with an army. The company is determined to control El Toro any way it can—if not through county supervisors it hand-picks, then through state and federal officials it knows how to schmooze. In 1995, the company was prepared to swap 10,000 acres of canyons near the Cleveland National Forest for just 850 acres on the 4,700-acre base. In a moment of rare candor, Huntington Beach Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher called the plan a “rip-off”; Clinton's Interior Department agreed and killed the deal.

What a surprise that the company should end up with something better than that—a vast central park that runs up to the doorsteps of its property—under the current initiative.

For much of the county's history, parks and dedicated open space have been the cast-off, otherwise undevelopable lands of the Irvine Co. and other landowners. Usually environmentally sensitive and rugged and sometimes sheer cliffs, the lands are a poor trade for the valuable and vast acreages buried beneath tract homes and business complexes.

El Toro represents a chance for Irvine or county officials—whoever ends up controlling the base—to reverse that pattern and finally recoup the benefits of public investment for the public.

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