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Ground Control
Orange County Great Park finally making progress.
Palm Court at the Orange County Great Park.
Sam Lubell

It’s been almost six years since the Orange County Great Park—1,360 acres of recreation area built on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine that’s almost twice the size of New York’s Central Park— was first awarded to New York landscape architect Ken Smith. But until recently, the most notable element was a giant orange balloon floating over a former runway. While impressive and popular (over 100,000 visitors have taken a ride), a balloon hardly made the place worth visiting. Finally, it is starting to look like the park it is supposed to be.

New additions completed over the summer have more than doubled its completed space. The first was the Palm Court, a 7.5-acre courtyard, lined with 54 palm trees shaded by white steel awning structures ringing the perimeter, and containing an art gallery and artist-in-residence spaces located in former 1940’s Marine administration buildings.

Overall plan of the Great Park.
Courtesy Orange County Great Park

The second, the North Lawn, is an 18.5-acre space dominated by manicured grass planes that can be used for soccer, picnics, and concerts. The lawn includes undulating bioswales full of native plants, helping filter and drain water. Meandering walking and biking paths lace the edges.

Once adjacent soccer fields are completed next year, the $65.5 million first phase of the park’s “Western Sector” will be complete. Other first phase elements include a carousel, a preview park, a 150-acre farm and food lab, a play area, a former hangar used for cultural events, and a farmers market to sell produce grown on site.

The park is being built by the Great Park Corporation, a non-profit formed by the City of Irvine after developer Lennar contributed the land in exchange for the rights to develop about 3,500 acres of adjacent property. When the entire park is done, and much of it is still contingent on financing, it will include a 165-acre sports park; a two-mile long and 60-foot-deep canyon; a cultural terrace containing several museums and performing arts spaces; and a wildlife corridor.

While local attention has focused on the park’s slow progress—a function of a moribund economy and overeager projections— the park is unquestionably shaping up into a real attraction. There are serious obstacles ahead, nevertheless. For one, the hundreds of trees that are being planted still don’t provide enough shade, nor do they succeed at breaking up the monotony of so much flat land. The park is a vast plane, which is its real challenge. Smith has tried to combat it with as much variety as possible, but the parade-ground aesthetic still dominates, and the more shapely elements are the ones that will be implemented far off in the future.

Left to right: A foot bridge over a landscaped ravine; The North Lawn; a stone walkway; a detail of a metal shade canopy.
Sam Lubell

In the meantime, Smith is creating what he calls a “contemporary mosaic” of plantings, which he often arranges in a pixelated pattern, staggering them for maximum effect. Each zone of the park, meanwhile, is separated by a barrier, such as the wooden bridges that ring the great lawn. Other elements that break up the visual tedium include elegant wood tables and benches, several walking paths, roadside edges, including one formed from an old runway’s concrete, and in particular the graphically-rich signs created by LA artist April Greiman.

For the New York designer, getting people into the park and out of their cars is another challenge. “People are willing to walk further than they think they will,” said Smith, who shows his East Coast bias when deconstructing the habits of Orange County residents. Still he’s listening to them. One way is through the Preview Park—an area with prototypes demonstrating proposed designs--where he has received feedback to change quite a bit already, including scrapping the use of scaffolding for shade, employing “slicker” finishes, and adding more shade structures and trees.

“People aren’t shy,” summed up Smith. Nor can they afford to be. Unless the Great Park Corporation is able to secure more funding, the next phases of this great experiment, which are expected to take as long as 15 to 20 years to complete, will be flat for the foreseeable future.

Sam Lubell