That over-inflated political football known as the Orange County Great Park got kicked around the Irvine City Council this week when two audits were released documenting the “hubris,” political infighting and bad planning that have made for such entertaining reading over the past decade.
The Great Park was first envisioned after the U.S. military closed the Marine Corps’ El Toro Air Base in 1999. Initial proposals included turning part of the base into another commercial airport serving Southern California, a park, a nature preserve and multi-use development. The airport plan was rejected by voters in 2002, the military sold the 4,682 acres to Lennar Corporation for $649.5 million and the city of Irvine zoned it in a fashion that would result in 1,347 acres being devoted to the park.
The plan was for sports fields, museums and botanical gardens surrounded by forests, a lake, sprawling lawns and a 60-foot-deep man-made canyon. The Great Park’s website bills it as “The First Great Metropolitan Park of the 21st Century.”
An audit (pdf) of the legal aspects of the project, by the law firm Aleshire & Wynder, said the park was a mess from the start. Politicians put a $410 price tag on the project in 2006, based on available funding, and hired a design firm. Ten years later, more than $359 million has been spent to develop just 88 acres, or 6.5% of the park.
“It was fiction all the time,” the 157-page audit said, pointing a finger at Larry Agran, former Irvine mayor and chairman of the Great Park board of directors. Agran, in the Republican stronghold of Orange County, is a Democrat who ran for president in 1992 and received three votes at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
The authors said Agran knew $1 billion was closer to the mark, and by 2007, that was the price put on it by the design firm drawing up the master plan. Three months after the city signed off on the higher number, it was raised to $1.24 billion and by 2008 rocketed to $1.6 billion.
The audit said:
“The Master Plan was killed not by the recession or the loss of the redevelopment funding, it was killed by its own hubris, the failure to engage in a honest dialogue about how it could be funded, and failure to keep the consultants operating within any sort of affordable budget.”
The audit criticized billing and reimbursement that might include breach of contract and professional malpractice by contractors working on the park between 2005 and 2012, and recommended further investigation.
A second audit (pdf), by the forensics firm HSNO, analyzed the Great Park contracts and generally dovetailed with the lawyers in its criticism of the project and its participants. Project management company Gafcon, Inc. filed a complaint last year with the State Accountancy Board against HSNO, and called its report ““feeble and failed attempt to validate the city’s previous claims,” according to the Orange County Register.
Project public relations firm Forde & Mollrich also ripped the reports and said it would issue a point-by-point rebuttal. They criticized HSNO for conducting what it admitted was not a formal audit in compliance with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
The headline on Dan Chmielewski's story at the Liberal OC said the audits were confirmation of a “witch hunt,” meant to hang the debacle on Agran and his political allies. “What Christina Shea and Jeff Lalloway (and a legion of Irvine Republicans) want here is evidence of criminal activity on Agran’s part,” he wrote. “There’s nothing criminal here.”