IMAGE: ABANDONED HANGAR AT FUTURE PARK
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Abandoned jet hangers like this one at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine, Calif., will make way for a 5,000-acre park.
updated 1/25/2006 12:31:47 PM ET 2006-01-25T17:31:47

It was an opportunity that made developers drool: Nearly 5,000 acres of untouched land up for grabs smack in the middle of one of the most densely populated and built-out counties in the nation.

But seven years after the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station closed, the flat, nondescript land is instead on the verge of becoming The Orange County Great Park, one of the largest, most amenity-filled open spaces ever planned for the United States.

“It’s incredible. In this county, with the traffic and the population, having a large green area like that is enormously attractive,” said longtime resident Dan Carlsson. “There’ll be nothing like it anywhere in the world.”

As conceived, the Great Park would be larger than New York City’s Central Park and about equal in size to San Diego’s Balboa Park and the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Tentative plans include a museum district, an open-air theater, a sports park and a wildlife corridor that will unravel a belt of green from the Cleveland National Forest to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The park’s first phase could be completed in two years, officials said.

Alternative was airport
The green space is a victory for residents who fought for more than a decade to keep the base from becoming another airport in a region crowded with jet traffic.

“Let’s face it, this land is very expensive down here, and they didn’t want an international airport,” said Marsha Burgess, Great Park Corporation spokeswoman.

In 2002, 12 years after the fight over El Toro began, voters approved a ballot measure clearing the way for open space. Three years later, Miami-based developer Lennar Corp. bought the 4,700-acre base from the Navy.

More than $1 billion will have changed hands before the process is complete, including nearly $650 million paid to the U.S. Navy and $400 million to the city in a complex arrangement in which 1,300 acres were set aside as parkland.

Experts say Great Park’s planners face a tremendous challenge: making such a large swath of land appealing to a diverse county of 3 million people.

Some of the parks recently visited by local officials belong in the “Hall of Shame” for their emphasis on edgy design instead of amenities, said Ethan Kent, vice president at the Project for Public Spaces in New York.

“This is an opportunity to do something really special, but the question remains if that vision is something that will really support ... and draw in the community around there.”

Financial wrongdoing?
The park faces other challenges. A grand jury is investigating communications between the city, Lennar and the Navy, after Great Park Chairman Larry Agran was accused of awarding no-bid contracts to friends. Another board member also resigned last year, complaining of financial mismanagement.

Agran, an Irvine city councilman and former mayor, said he’s confident the grand jury will find no wrongdoing.

“There are many, many people out there who wish us ill,” he said. “It was a bitter long struggle, but a majority of the county preferred a great park.”

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