Irvine set to vote on developer's streamlined Great Park plan

A builder is proposing a golf course and double the number of homes at the former military base, a far cry from the original vision.

November 12, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel

Orange County Great Park designer Ken Smith was hired for his vision. When he looked out at 1,300 acres of runways and abandoned buildings at a former military base in Irvine, he imagined a gathering place that could provide a center to this sprawling county, rivaling New York's Central Park and San Diego's Balboa Park.

But after years of designing an ambitious park, for which he and his team were paid millions, it seems increasingly likely that Smith's vision will be pushed aside in favor of a more pragmatic plan.

On Tuesday, the Irvine City Council is expected to vote on whether to approve a plan proposed by a developer to build about 688 acres of the park. Gone is the long, winding canyon that was described in the park's master plan as a "beautiful oasis — a place to wander and daydream." In its place could be a 188-acre golf course. Gone is the largely centralized parking that would have forced people out of their cars to wander around the park. In its place, parking lots scattered throughout.


"They really are developing something that isn't creating a great public park in any way," Smith said. "It's just sort of cheap and fast and takes up a lot of space."

But after years of spending and setbacks that left the city with little money and few options, the developer's proposal may be the only way to move forward, backers say.

"If we don't do it now, we will have runways and weeds for the next 40 years," said Councilwoman Christina Shea. "That's not what we ever envisioned."

Developer FivePoint Communities, which is building 4,900 homes around the perimeter, has proposed getting the project underway by building 688 acres of park space at an estimated cost of $172 million. In exchange, the firm would be allowed to nearly double the number of homes that will surround the park — to 9,500.

"Ken Smith can talk about his vision until the cows come home," said Emile Haddad, FivePoint's president and chief executive. "They have no money."

Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, one of Smith's most ardent supporters, said he shared some of the designer's objections.

The current proposal, he said, "is a matter of real concern to those of us that have seen this as a public project, representative of the aspirations of the people of Orange County and Irvine, as opposed to an adjunct project of a private, profit-driven land developer."

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