Were Great Park master plans a good investment?
Officials spent tens of millions on designs, but it’s not clear all will be used.
By JEFF OVERLEY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Published: Nov. 23, 2011 Updated: Nov. 27, 2011 3:06 p.m.
In ways big and small, Irvine officials are altering their vision for the Orange County Great Park, raising fresh questions about a front-loaded design effort that cost tens of millions of dollars.
The alterations often seem reasonable – the Great Park will cover nearly 1,500 acres and could take decades to build, so it's not surprising that plans would evolve over time.
But every change to the Great Park's layout and amenities raises the possibility that expensive planning documents will be less relevant or not be used at all.
That, in turn, goes to the heart of the debate over the philosophy of Great Park leaders, who brushed off early calls to speed up construction and instead developed detailed plans for the entire park that cover hundreds of thousands of pages.
Should officials, in retrospect, have put off extensive designs until projects were set in stone?
"I love the Monday-morning quarterbacking," said Beth Krom, chairwoman of the Great Park board.
In fact, though, criticism has been around for some time.
From the start, Great Park leaders signaled they would pursue the sort of rigorous planning for which Irvine is known. That meant an international design competition that solicited proposals from around the globe and, in a move that attracted scattered complaints, saw elected officials traveling to Europe to study ideas.
After a designer was selected, the first major step was creation of a master plan laying out goals and concepts. It cost about $10 million and did not encounter widespread opposition.
Next, in 2007, officials approved creating a schematic design that includes nearly 90 reports and nearly 1,000 sets of drawings. That step, which cost about $40 million, analyzes the entire park and provides about 30 percent of the detail needed before construction.
As planning stretched on for months and eventually years, some observers lost patience with Irvine's approach.
"I'm disappointed to see so much rhetoric and attention surrounding the Great Park without the results to back it up," Supervisor Bill Campbell said in a 2008 letter published in The Orange County Register.
That same year, Irvine businessman and former council candidate Mitch Goldstone posted banners around town asking, "Where is the Great Park?"
The schematic design was finished in 2009, and when it was unveiled, Councilman Larry Agran pointed to the documents as vindication of the city's approach.
"I think this provides an answer to those who, largely out of ignorance, have asked, 'What have you been doing the last few years?' and 'Where have the tens of millions of dollars been spent?'" Agran said at the time. "If you want to do something on this scale that is this great, you have to invest the money up front in planning and design, because the payoff is enormous."
That assumes, however, that the designs will actually be used.
TWEAKING THE DESIGN
Officials say they are staying true to most of the original design, but significant departures are evident.
For one, the upper portion of a proposed canyon is dramatically narrower than originally envisioned, the result of adjustments in the layout of privately built homes that will surround the park.
In the park's proposed Cultural Terrace area, officials are considering additional changes. A large lake might incorporate pedestrian areas and reflecting pools, a proposed outdoor entertainment venue might be moved and an orchard parking lot might be reconfigured. Two hangars slated for demolition could be preserved, and runways that were to be torn up to allow a "promenade of the senses" might instead be rehabilitated for parking.
In the area where early construction has been concentrated, additional changes are apparent. They include moving a planned aviation museum to a different section of the park, placing a parking lot where sports fields were expected and possibly building a meadow and ice-hockey center where a soccer field and parking lot were anticipated.
Many of those changes reflect efforts to save money and provide amenities that park leaders say will maximize public benefit. In some cases, officials say, revisions are motivated by recession-driven postponement of private development at the shuttered El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which delayed funding and infrastructure for the Great Park.
"Master plans change," said Mike Ellzey, Great Park chief executive. Projects of this size "almost never get built to the master plan," Ellzey said.
But if such changes are common, was it wise to design every part of the park in such detail and at such expense?
"We will be able to use a substantial part" of the plans, Ellzey replied.
LOOKING BACK, WHILE LOOKING AHEAD
How substantial a part remains to be seen, but to the extent plans go unused, the case is bolstered for those who have questioned the park's direction.
"This is a crucial point that critics of the council majority have been discussing for a long time," said Councilman Jeff Lalloway, one of two Republicans on the Democrat-dominated, officially nonpartisan council.
"They spent all this money up front to plan things, (but) market conditions and a whole variety of variables come into play. Determining what should be built is an evolving concept."
It's not clear what other changes might be on the horizon, but some observers – Lalloway included – have voiced doubts about the feasibility and value of the man-made, two-mile-long canyon that would be the Great Park's centerpiece. "Highly skeptical," is how Lalloway described his perspective.
In interviews, Krom and Mayor Sukhee Kang reiterated support for a canyon, as did Agran, who said, "This land was so flat and unremarkable that we wanted to rebuild some kind of contour into the land."
Long term, Agran said he sees the vast majority of the original design coming to life, and suggested the investment in planning will ultimately be justified.
"There are folks who are frankly just plain ignorant – and determined to stay ignorant – about what it means to master-plan a community and master-plan a park," Agran said. "We could do things on a piecemeal basis without a master plan, chunk by chunk, hiring a new designer every time. But that's not the Irvine way, and the Irvine way has proven successful."