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Irvine moves forward with modest O.C. Great Park expansion

June 13, 2012 |  7:08 pm

Great Park balloon
Irvine is moving forward with a plan to sculpt 30 more acres of an old military base into soccer fields, basketball courts, gardens, ponds and a visitors center.

The $22.8-million expansion of the Orange County Great Park will break ground this summer and be completed by late 2013 by Stanton-based USS Cal Builders Inc., city officials said Wednesday.

The new features will include:

  • Four soccer fields, four basketball courts and an exercise trail
  • Six small ponds with a viewing pier, 400 tree plantings and a 99-plot community garden
  • A 5,000-square-foot visitors center to replace a tent near the park’s balloon ride
  • A 2,604-foot walkable historical timeline 

The announcement comes a few weeks after state officials ruled that $1.4 billion in property tax funds cannot be used to transform the 1,347-acre expanse of runways and fields into a public park nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park, putting the future of the project in jeopardy.

The expansion will be paid for with a portion of the $200 million in developer fees the city was paid by Lennar Corp. The company in 2005 bought the bulk of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro from the federal government and transferred its core to the city in exchange for the rights to surround it with homes and businesses, though the name of the developer is now FivePoint Communities Inc.

Irvine Mayor Pro Tem Beth Krom, who is chairwoman of the Great Park board, said the expansion plan uses existing money to build new features for the public to use now, even as the city mounts a legal fight with the state over future funding.

“Regardless of how that shakes out, we are committed to fully realizing the vision of the Orange County Great Park,” Krom said. “This is a project that has required a tremendous amount of creativity, vision and the ability to negotiate twists and turns. This is not the first challenge we’ve had to face.”

Since acquiring the land, Irvine has drafted an ambitious plan to build a landscape of sprawling lawns, forests, botanical gardens, athletic fields and museums, centered around a vast artificial lake and a 60-foot-deep man-made canyon, calling it "the first great metropolitan park of the 21st Century."

But the funding mechanism, in which tax money generated by homebuilding would pay for park construction, has unraveled with the sour economy and the state’s elimination of redevelopment agencies, leaving Irvine searching for other ways to pay for building the Great Park.

Those could include a deal being negotiated with the developer to trade the rights to build additional homes and commercial space around the park for additional money or possibly selling off pieces of the former military base to raise money.

The current park layout includes a tethered helium balloon ride that shuttles visitors 400 feet in the air, an arts complex dotted with palms, a lawn that is used for pickup soccer games and a 114-acre organic farm. The construction will increase that footprint by 15%, but leave more than 1,000 acres of the publicly owned portion of the base undeveloped.

-- Tony Barboza

Photo: A balloon lifts visitors above the Orange County Great Park. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times