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SoCal Connected

OC's Great Park: A Work in Progress or a Great Disappointment?

When you talk about the ultimate planned community, Irvine tops the list. Everything is carefully designed down to the smallest detail. That's the city's trademark. But then came the grand plan to build the "Great Park." An old marine base would be transformed into a green masterpiece. So what happened?

After 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars, there is a park, but how "great" is it?

Will Swaim/Managing Editor, Watchdog.com: What we've got is a balloon, really. $200 million for a balloon.

Jennifer London/Correspondent: This is the Orange County Great Park, built on the promise of becoming the country's next great metropolitan park, one that is supposed to rival New York's Central Park. The master plan calls for a canyon, with a lake for boating, a fishing pier, botanical gardens, a veteran's memorial, a sports complex, a wildlife corridor, to name just a few of the planned attractions.

The reality is after ten years, and upwards of $200 million, there is a balloon, a carousel, a small sports field, an arts complex, and a garden. Many are now questioning whether the park is living up to that dream, and if it ever will.

Swaim: It's a wreck, and I think people are legitimately outraged that this really valuable asset was so grotesquely mismanaged.

London: Will Swaim is the former editor of the OC Weekly and is currently the managing editor of Watchdog.org. He's been covering the Great Park since voters approved a measure to build it in 2002.

Swaim: It is a gigantic park, and what it was supposed to be built for was one of the most densely populated counties in the country, without a center. The day I was there, I literally saw a tumbleweed bouncing across a vast parking area. That was it. It's pretty forlorn.

London: But it hasn't always been that way. For 57 years, the land was home to the El Toro Marine Base, and long before the first runway was ever paved, fruit trees and bean fields were all the eye could see. After the base was decommissioned in 1999, a plan was introduced to build an international airport. That proposal didn't fly with voters.

Chris Mears/Founding Chair, O.C. Great Park Corp.: This park, of course, it was formed largely in response to the public's efforts to stop a commercial airport and replace it with a better idea.

London: Chris Mears is a former member of the Irvine City Council, and the founding chair of the Orange County Great Park Corporation. He left that post in 2004 and has since become a vocal critic of the park and its management.

Mears: In the beginning, we envisioned a park that was a much more modest undertaking than the one that was ultimately envisioned, and is now the one that evidently is about to sit in ruins.

London: Originally, the park's total budget was $400 million. That figure has since ballooned to $1.4 billion because, according to Mears, park planning spun out of control.

Mears: Had the city and the Great Park Corporation stayed on course and had they gleaned or adhered closely to our original plan, there would have been far more progress made than has been made.

London: Funding for the Great Park has run into trouble because, one, money from housing and retail developments disappeared with the bad economy; two, additional money from the state for redevelopment never came in; and three, many, like Swaim, claim park funds have been squandered.

Swaim: Most of the money has gone to public relations and marketing for huge staff salaries for large numbers of people who don't really produce any value, any actual value.

London: If you really want to see the whole picture of the Orange County Great Park, this is the way to do it -- aboard the Big Orange Balloon ride. It was the park's first major attraction to open. It carries 25 to 30 people and climbs 400 feet in the air. For park supporters, this big orange balloon is the crown jewel. For park critics, it's a punchline.

London: From up here you can see the beauty and the blight. But after ten years and roughly $200 million, many are asking, "Is this all there is to show for it? And where has all the money gone?"

Joyce Green/Resident: I think a large percent of the money has been misused because there is not enough showing for the amount of money that has been spent.

Tony Sora/Resident: The actual premise of it sounded great at the beginning, and when you look at what the progress has been, it's a little disappointing.

Green: I'm not sure I'm very confident in the leadership of the Great Park.

Beth Krom/Irvine City Council Member: It's easy to say there is nothing but a balloon. Look around you, that's clearly not a factual statement.

London: Beth Krom sits on the Irvine City Council, and until a few weeks ago, was chair of the Orange County Great Park Corporation, which means, for the last two years, she has been in charge of managing the park's development and the park's cash.

London [to Krom]: Some say that the $200 million that has been spent has been mismanaged.

Krom: It's easy to say the money could have been spent differently. But I think a lot of those people would prefer the money had not been spent at all because they don't really believe in the project.

London: Beth, yes or no. Has the money for the great park been mismanaged?

Krom: No. The money has not been mismanaged. Every financial decision we've made has been made at a public meeting, and every responsibility that any public entity has, we've had, for how these dollars are spent.

London: Here's how some of those dollars have been spent so far, much of it on no-bid contracts: $12.4 million to a public relations firm and $50 million on park designs. What remains in question is how much has been spent on the existing attractions -- and if it all adds up.

London [to Choi]: The balloon ride, the Palm Courts Arts Complex, there's the carousel, the farm and food lab, there's a small north lawn. How does all that equal upwards of $200 million?

Steven Choi/Irvine Mayor: That's a very good question.

London: You don't know the answer? You don't know how the money has been spent?

London: Steven Choi has recently been elected mayor of Irvine and is now part of the new Republican majority on the city council. And that's a big deal because after 10 years, there's a new sheriff in town.

Choi: You are asking me very difficult questions. I do not have such figures, how much each project you are mentioning have cost --

London: Should you know, should you know those figures?

Choi: I think I need to get to know those figures as I embark upon my duty as mayor.

London: During a marathon eight-and-a-half-hour city council meeting on January 8, Mayor Choi and two other Republican council members demanded answers and change, approving a forensic audit and putting an end to the no-bid contracts.

Christine Shea/Irvine City Council: For years we've been paying them a hundred, a hundred twenty thousand a month. I mean, it's just been an outrageous contract.

Larry Agran/Irvine City Council: We have had multiple layers of financial controls from the very beginning.

London: Larry Agran is also a longtime council member and, by all accounts, the father of the Great Park, championing the defeat of the airport and driving the park's development. He served as chair of the Great Park Corporation for six years before his political ally, Beth Krom, took over.

Swaim: Was the money mismanaged? There is no question. There are people who have pulled down six figures each month in order to do public relations work for a park that has become all sizzle and no steak. This is a nonpartisan, bipartisan, multi-partisan kind of gang drive-by, I think -- a bunch of bureaucratic thugs.

London: When we requested an interview with Larry Agran, we were told in an email, "We'll wait until you have your other interviews lined up and then Councilmember Agran will make a decision about whether he will be on camera." We were never granted an interview.

Mears: Look, the problem, part of this problem is that the economy didn't cooperate. But his critics will certainly say, I assume there will be a mounting, there will be a growing criticism of Larry and others of the way they sought to manage the park.

London: Councilmember Beth Krom defends the park's management, development, and public appeal.

Krom: The truth is we've had over 700 people come -- 700,000, excuse me -- people come to the park last year, and we expect to break a million this year. We secured the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon for October 2013, beating out 20 other metropolitan areas. I don't think 750,000 people came here for nothing.

London: Construction is currently underway to build the South Lawn Sports Field and Community Building, but money is running out, and only 200 of the 1,300 acres have been developed. And the old marine base runway still slices right through the park.

Choi: People are making a semi-joke when they see Irvine officials. "Where's the park? How's the Great Park doing?" And that's become like a greeting.

London: To bring in additional dollars, the board has agreed to develop 5,000 new homes, with 5,000 more under consideration.

Mears: We're not going to get a great regional park. We're going to get another residential village here in the City of Irvine with some park land around it.

London: Mayor Choi says he and the new majority on the city council can get the park back on track.

Choi: I am trying my best to refocus upon the building the physical park and stop the wasteful spending. And finally after waiting eight years I can make speedy progress and hoping that this time it is very different situation.

London: From the beginning the Orange County Great Park was a lofty undertaking, with its future still very much up in the air.

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