What Happened to Orange County’s Not-So-Great “Great Park” and Its $200 Million?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Orange County’s Great Park in Southern California bills itself on its website as “The First Great Metropolitan Park of the 21st Century.” But at the pace it’s going, development of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into a park will still be ongoing in the 22nd Century.

In the meantime, the City of Irvine, which annexed the property in 2003, would like to know what happened to $200 million earmarked for a recreational wonderland expected to rival San Diego’s Balboa Park and attract comparison’s to New York’s Central Park. Very little work has been done on the site and a park that was supposed to be completed in five years is looking at decades of development.

A study by the Los Angeles Times found that half the $200 million was awarded without competitive bidding and only one-fifth was used for actual construction. The rest went to planning, public relations and events at the small corner of the property used mostly for a hot-air-balloon attraction. The November 6 election that politically realigned the city council―control shifted from Democrats to Republicans―now promises to bring a finger-pointing shift as well.

“I want to build the park,” incumbent Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway told the Times. “I’m not certain that the current council majority has ever been interested in doing that.”

But while there may be blame aplenty to spread between the political parties, there is no denying that the failed economy has presented the biggest challenge.


After the base was decommissioned in 2001 and annexed by Irvine, the Department of the Navy auctioned off its 4,682 acres to Lennar Corporation for $649.5 million. Lennar received development rights from the city in exchange for 1,347 acres to be used for the Great Park’s sports fields, museums and botanical gardens surrounded by forests, a lake, sprawling lawns and a 60-foot-deep man-made canyon.

But before development could start, the housing market collapsed and the private development that was to surround the public park and provide a tax base for its transformation never got off the ground. And then last year, the state grabbed $1.4 billion in redevelopment property tax funds from the city to help balance its own budget.

When Lennar made its deal with the city, it also gave the city $200 million in development fees up front. According to the Times, $90 million went for planning and design, $38 million to actual construction, $29 million for administration, $28 million for operations and $16 million for publicity and free events. The last of that money will be gone next year.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

Great Park: Irvine Wants to Know How $200 Million Was Spent (by Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times)

Not-So-Great Park (by Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times)

Developer Offers to Build O.C. Great Park for Irvine (by Thomas Martinez, Orange County Register)

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