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Great Park deal in Irvine gets go-ahead

August 12, 2009 |  7:05 am

Greatpark In the latest effort to move forward on a massive park planned for the former El Toro Marine base in Orange County, the City of Irvine has struck a new deal with the developer that is supposed to build thousands of homes around the parkland.

In a 3-2 vote late Tuesday, the Irvine City Council approved substantial changes to its 2005 agreement with Lennar Corp., which purchased the El Toro Marine base from the U.S. Navy to build thousands of homes around 1,347 acres of the now city-owned land that is being called the Orange County Great Park.

Under the agreement, Lennar will transfer 131 additional acres to Irvine and pay the city $58 million for infrastructure and park maintenance. In exchange, the housing giant would be let off the hook for some of its obligations to the city, including building a 45-hole golf course and leaving 173 acres of the base as farmland.

The deal also opens public land to limited development: It allows the city to build a police station, hotels, restaurants and retail space on portions of the nearly 1,500-acre expanse envisioned as parkland -- a footprint nearly twice the size of New York’s Central Park that designers liken to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Balboa Park in San Diego.

City leaders who supported the plan say the infusion of cash will allow them to get a jump start on developing hundreds of acres into parkland, an endeavor that has floundered because of the collapse of the housing market.

The project relies on tax money expected from housing and commercial developments that were to be built surrounding the park, but those plans have been at a standstill. Councilman Larry Agran, who is also chairman of the city’s Orange County Great Park Corp., said the agreement will allow workers to start work on the park by demolishing runways by this fall.

“This is a truly a remarkable milestone, especially against the backdrop of an economic environment where almost no major projects other than traditional infrastructure are moving forward,” he said.

But those voting against the changes, including Councilwoman Christina Shea, expressed concern that they would pave the way for higher density and more development in and around the park and that they granted too many concessions to the struggling housing developer.

“This is just a bailout for Lennar and it’s a sellout to Irvine residents,” Shea said.

The developer said it will benefit by having more land to build on, developing shared infrastructure, such roads and sewers, and making progress toward a park that will make its property more desirable when homes eventually are built.

"That is the amenity that we're relying on," said Emile Haddad, president and CEO of Five Point Communities, a firm that manages the land at the old El Toro base for Lennar and other investors.

In a separate, 4-1 vote, the Irvine council also approved 1,269 additional housing units, entitling Lennar to build up to 4,894 units on land surrounding the park. City officials earlier this year approved a final design that includes intricate details of how the park is expected to look, complete with a man-made canyon, hiking trails, soccer fields and museums.

Leaders this year also gave the go-ahead for $61 million in spending they say will begin to transform 500 acres of the former military base into a park over the next three to five years.

--Tony Barboza at Irvine City Hall

Photo: At the intersection of Barranca and Alton parkways in Irvine in January a tractor and crew prepare the ground for green beans instead of neighborhoods.

Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times