The Incredible Shrinking Park

Photo by Jack GouldFacing alarm over their development plans for the abandoned El Toro Marine base, Irvine city officials have responded with an old-fashioned PR tactic: they've blamed the media.

“I have concerns about some journalists who skew what it is we do here,” said Councilman Chris Mears of Great Park coverage during a July 23 Irvine City Council meeting. “How on earth can anyone say anything negative about this?”

Mears said the city will boost “public outreach” funding to counter the media's “disinformation” and “inform our residents of the truth.”

In fact, the truth is easy to see: the Great Park is shrinking.

In a map made public earlier that day, city officials revealed that the actual park part of the Great Park—the meadows and forests—has been pared down to a measly 356 acres. To mask the disappearance, city cartographers deceptively labeled just about everything “open space”—including exposition centers, golf courses, farmland and even a veterans cemetery. Drainage ditches appear as bright green belts called “Riparian Corridors”—also open space. A 1,006-acre habitat reserve is also incorrectly included in the Great Park, even though that land—which would have been preserved under even the most aggressive airport plan—is undevelopable, sensitive habitat with limited public access.

But most disquieting is the addition of 2.9 million square feet of commercial space and 3,400 homes. No previous Great Park proposal included such intense development.

This isn't to say the Great Park has disappeared entirely. Add the 356-acre park to the sports fields, 45-hole golf course and exposition centers, and you get 1,488 authentic Great Park acres—still larger than New York's Central Park (843 acres), but substantially less than the 2,800-acre Great Park Irvine Mayor Larry Agran promised in late March.

Of course, county residents may not get even 1,500 acres. Because the Navy has chosen to auction the base to the highest bidder, Irvine will get no free land. It promises to use its zoning authority to force future landowners and developers to build the park. To do that, city officials have devised a complex set of “incentives” to entice developers to convert some of their costly El Toro land to public use. The biggest incentive so far is a promise to fast-track residential and commercial construction—without project environmental impact reports or pesky lawsuits.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the months leading up to the Great Park vote of March 2002, the city of Irvine sent out colorful, unambiguous mailers. Describing “A Plan for America's Greatest Park,” they presented a Great Park virtually identical to other major metropolitan parks, with no residential or commercial development at all.

What appears to be a sudden about-face was actually a political decision made early in the Great Park campaign, Irvine insiders say. “You've got to exaggerate to get what you want in politics,” said one.

The exaggerations allowed anti-airport activists to lure critical North County voters into the Great Park campaign. They hooked them with mailers promising the Great Park would “improve the quality of life for every county resident.” It was to be “America's Greatest Park,” “a true oasis.”

Then, a few weeks after the election, with the Navy promising an auction and Irvine planning officials waffling on the numbers, Irvine Mayor Larry Agran stepped in. In a March 20 interview with the Weekly, he promised a “2,800-acre park”—including nearly 1,000 acres of public greenery.

“It will be twice the size and every bit as beautiful as San Diego's Balboa Park,” Agran said. “The good guys are going to win.”

So far, the good guys are losing—so badly that the best we may be able to hope for is 3,000 acres of pine-scented development.

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