One of the nation’s most ambitious new parks got a green light last month. The board of the Orange County Great Park approved $65.5 million in new construction, setting the stage for the first complete swath of what will eventually become a 1,347-acre public space—and a model for how to integrate recreation, ecological restoration, and urban agriculture in the 21st century.
The October 22 announcement marks a milestone for the project, which has been in the works for more than a decade as part of a bid to reinvent Irvine’s former El Toro marine air station, which closed in 1999. The park was born after developer Lennar Corporation purchased the former base at auction, and transferred the park parcel to the city of Irvine as the core of a planned 4,700-acre, mixed-use development. The immense scope of the project—it includes an entire canyon carved from scratch—makes the present phase seem almost slight by comparison.
“While $65 million is a lot of money, it’s a small piece of the billion or billion-and-a-half dollar project,” said Ken Smith, the landscape architect who leads the Great Park Design Studio. “So the issue we’ve been struggling with is, do you build a smaller area to full detail and amenity, or do you try to stretch the money out over a large area with less detail?”
In the end, designers opted for a compromise targeting 200 acres, fewer than initially planned, but with more robust amenities. Set for completion by 2011, the new construction capitalizes on the success of the 27.5-acre “preview park,” opened in 2008 and known for its popular observation balloon. Among the new elements are a series of sports fields along a nine-acre “walkable timeline”—a corridor featuring shade structures, seating, and a system of historical markers—as well as a palm-tree grove flanking a renovated hangar that can be used for exhibitions and special events.
But the most extensive areas to be constructed aren’t so much for recreation as for hard work: a 100-acre farm with a 2,500-tree orchard, plus a community garden, food lab, and an iconic farmer’s market pavilion to be designed by Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos. “Agriculture was part of the original idea of what makes a contemporary park contemporary,” Smith said. “It is also one of the less costly things to do to engage a large acreage.” In addition to Norten, Smith’s team includes LA-based landscape architect Mia Lehrer, ecologist Steven Handel, and engineer Pat Fuscoe.
The park’s progress has been complicated by litigation launched by Forest Lawn, a cemetery whose owners claim Lennar backed out of an agreement to jointly develop a 73-acre cemetery in the surrounding development. The lawsuit has halted the transfer of certain development funds to the Great Park, but officials are optimistic. “We are moving forward in spite of the obstacles put in our path by a lawsuit filed against the city of Irvine by owners of Forest Lawn Cemetery,” park board chairman Larry Agran said in a statement. “I commend our staff and the Great Park Design Studio for giving us a plan to build as much as we can under challenging circumstances.”
Funding for future phases is expected to come from tax-increment financing derived from Lennar’s adjacent development. The recession has put the brakes on those funds, which may not materialize for five years. The gradually-phased approach, however, does have its benefits. “It allows the park to develop and move forward in a way that we learn from it,” said Smith, noting that the preview park has already offered several instructive lessons. “One thing we learned is that we can’t plant enough shade fast enough.”