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The Orange County Great Park: A Grand Vision Gone Awry

The Big Orange: Great Park, Orange County | Joe Wolf via Flickr
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The Orange County Great Park could have been an idyllic oasis in overbuilt Orange County, CA had its original plans been achieved. Those plans combined features of Central Park, Balboa Park and Golden Gate Park, according to park proponent Larry Agran. But many of the park’s original goals, which would have included a canyon, a lake, a library, museums and a veterans’ cemetery, have been subverted by politicians, builders and citizen groups.

Looking back, in 1994, the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine was slated for closure. At that time, several groups lobbied to turn the marine station into a commercial airport, while anti-airport contingents worked to oppose it. After the public voted in 2002 to turn the base into the Great Park, the Department of Defense sold the property to the Miami-based Lennar Corporation, which transferred nearly one-third of its original 4,700 acres, or 1,347 acres, to public ownership and contributed $200 million toward the park’s development. The plan was to allow Lennar to build approximately 5,000 homes outside of the park proper, but within the former marine base, and to create numerous architectural, landscaping and environmental features within the park. Those features, as outlined by New York-based landscape architect Ken Smith in 2009, included, “sustainability at a large scale, making social spaces that promote community and health, connections to regional identity and a sense of history.”

Architect Ken Smith, OC Metro, 2006 | Legacy Project photographers
Architect Ken Smith, OC Metro, 2006 | Legacy Project photographers

Today, with those original plans scaled down or scrapped, FivePoint Communities, a Lennar spinoff, is in the process of building an additional 5,000 homes in the highly promoted Great Park Neighborhoods, within the original base and just outside of the actual park.

There is also the potential of FivePoint constructing more homes or commercial buildings there if a proposed land swap is achieved. The intended swap involves 125 acres of land, within the Great Park’s 1,347 acres, originally allocated for the Southern California Veterans Cemetery. To achieve this swap, FivePoint is offering in exchange a parcel of land of equal size, near Irvine’s I 5 and I 405 interchange. (The land is referred to as “strawberry fields” because it is temporarily used as farmland to grow strawberries.) With the swap in place, FivePoint could put up additional buildings on the original cemetery land, which is adjacent to $2 million homes.

As explained by Councilmembers Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott in “Irvine Community News and Views,” building a cemetery at strawberry fields would be, “a ‘giveaway’ of valuable City property to developer FivePoint, and it would indefinitely delay any prospect of bringing a State-funded and State-maintained Veterans Cemetery to Irvine.” Opponents to the swap further cite the additional 9,000 daily commuter trips to the Great Park if the original cemetery land becomes commercial property; not to mention appropriation of park land for the buildings.  Proponents of moving the cemetery assert that the land is within the perimeters of the original marine base. Irvine Councilwoman Melissa Fox states , “Like the original site, the strawberry fields site once formed part of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.”

After that alternate site was re-zoned to allow the cemetery a dedication, funded by FivePoint, took place there on October 27, 2017. “The majority of councilmembers had voted to rezone that property for the cemetery, recognizing that it has yet to receive approvals and evaluations with no assurance of funding,” explained former Irvine City Councilwoman, Mary Ann Gaido.

Lake, Wilderness Corridor, Ken Smith Renderings, 2011 |  Legacy Project photographers
Lake, Wilderness Corridor, Ken Smith Renderings, 2011 | Legacy Project photographers

Soon after the dedication, a citizen-led petition drive was launched to save the original veterans cemetery. Then on November 9, Agran and two other people filed a lawsuit with Irvine, indicating that plans to move the cemetery to the strawberry fields location, “benefits wealthy developers at the significant expense of the people of Irvine, California, veterans and the environment.” “By November 11, an astonishing 19,140 voters agreed that re-zoning the Great Park site to a business park deserves to be decided by the electorate of Irvine,” added Gaido. “This campaign, led by army veteran Ed Pope, won its first critical assurance that Irvine voters will have a chance to weigh in (in 2018) on this critical issue.”

Veterans at Hangar 244, 2010 | Legacy Project photographers
Veterans at Hangar 244, 2010 | Legacy Project photographers

In the 15 years since the park concept was approved, it has devolved according to some factions or evolved according to others. Meanwhile, the pro-building contingent is constructing a 194-acre “Great Park Sports Park” and a golf course in place of many of landscape designer Smith’s original plans within the actual park. The sports park, when completed, will include a 2,500-seat soccer stadium, which is already built, 25 tennis courts, 12 baseball and softball fields, six soccer fields and five sand volleyball courts.

Commenting on these changes, Agran, Irvine mayor in the 1980s and from 2,000 to 2,004, explained: “The state cut the amount of money they planned to give to the park during the recent recession to help close their budget deficit. There was also a calculated campaign by local politicians to destroy our vision. FivePoint told the public that we (the original park managers) weren’t doing enough and that Ken Smith’s designs were ‘ridiculous.’ They then dramatically expanded the number of homes they planned to build.”

As Smith was creating his designs for the park nearly ten years ago, an additional chorus of naysayers was already disputing the landscape designer’s schematic designs and master plans, which reportedly cost $40 million.

Larry Agran, Celebrating New Additions to Great Park, 2006 | Legacy Project photographers
Larry Agran, Celebrating New Additions to Great Park, 2006 | Legacy Project photographers

Agran continued, “Irvine politicians have backed the developers and given them all kinds of entitlements. The developers ignored Smith’s design for a canyon and lake, and instead proposed a golf course for that area. That is idiotic, as there are already four commercial courses in Irvine. A golf course is also an attraction for Asians, many from China and Taiwan, who are buying 50 to 80 percent of the homes here. Today, the Irvine City Council is also the board for the Great Park, and they have no vision. We had hoped to have museums here, including the Irvine Museum. But it is in the process of moving to the UC Irvine campus instead.”

Referring to aspects of Smith’s plans already implemented in the park, Agran added, “Our Carousel, resurrected from the Fashion Island shopping center, is the most heavily used carousel in the country. We have the Balloon that takes riders up to 400 feet, and we have the Kids Rock Playground, an ecology-themed play area with shading, outside of the Visitors Center. There’s the restoration of the 10,000 square-foot ‘Hangar 244’ where we hold events and displays. (The hangar’s current ‘Heritage and Aviation Exhibition’ features historic images, displays and artifacts, telling the story of the Great Park land from its agricultural roots to its role as a marine base.) It’s near the Walkable Historical Timeline, relating stories of humankind’s evolution. We have a two-acre farm and food lab with fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs. And we have the Palm Court Arts Complex developed from two renovated squadron support buildings. It includes the expansive Great Park Gallery, the nearby Great Park Artist Studios and a shaded outdoor performance plaza.” To the gallery’s and its director Kevin Staniec’s credit, groundbreaking contemporary art exhibitions have been mounted there for more than ten years. As Agran concluded the interview, he said, “When we (hopefully) take over Irvine’s City Council in 2018-2020, we can resurrect the original plans and build a library, an amphitheater and maybe a museum. And when the golf course fails, we’ll build Ken Smith’s canyon.”

Great Park Carousel, 2010 | Legacy Project photographers
Great Park Carousel, 2010 | Legacy Project photographers

Henry J. Korn, former Great Park's Arts and Culture director, worked with Agran, recruited Staniec and guided the design, construction and activation of the Arts Complex. Korn added, "Larry is justifiably proud of everything that was presented to the public before the thoughtless giveaway of at least a half billion dollars worth of public land by his political enemies to a shrewd and conniving land developer. In the sad case of the Great Park project, I can only say ‘viva’ to those who failed in such a distinguished way."

Over the past 15 years, a group of six photographers has been observing the park endure its many changes. Calling themselves The Legacy Project, these seasoned photographers have documented the marine base’s transition to the Great Park. In the first few years before the base was dismantled, they photographed its shuttered neighborhoods, barracks, runways and hangars. “We felt like archeologists entering a ghost town when we first explored the air station,” explained Jerry Burchfield, Legacy Project co-founder, in a 2007 Orange Coast magazine article. “While prowling the base and photographing the officers’ homes, backyards and playgrounds, we had a strong sense of the families that had lived there. We saw barbecues, furniture and children’s shoes, and could almost hear the sounds of the people who had worked and played there.” The Project’s images of the air station have been displayed by many regional museums and galleries.

Legacy Project, Great Picture, 2006 | Legacy Project photographers
Legacy Project, Great Picture, 2006 | Legacy Project photographers

In 2006, Project members created “The Great Picture,” the largest photograph in the world made as a single seamless image. The enormous black and white picture of the control tower, runways and auxiliary structures of the former marine base has been on display at the University of California, Riverside, the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Legacy Project members have photographically documented the park with passion, in the expectation that it would evolve as planned by Ken Smith and his design team. Today, many of their 200,000 plus images, along with other relevant materials, are being archived by UC Irvine’s Special Collections and Archives. The Project’s photos are a treasure trove of the former marine base in transition, impressionistically and conceptually expressing a vision of what might still be realized at the Orange County Great Park.

All images except the top by Legacy Project photographers Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Rob Johnson, Doug McCulloh and Clayton Spada.

Top Image: The Big Orange: Great Park, Orange County | Joe Wolf via Flickr

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