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Orange County’s Great Park: Still great, still a work in progress

Orange County’s Great Park: Still great, still a work in progress
Beth Krom, Chair of the Orange County Great Park Corporation
The Los Angeles Times also published the Great Park’s response in the Blowback section of their website.

In its Oct. 27 article, “Orange County’s planned Great Park a victim of hard times,” The Times paints a misleading picture by neglecting to provide adequate history and context. The truth is the Great Park in Irvine is not just moving forward, we are heading into our best year yet.

Consider that the next year will see the addition of four tournament-quality soccer fields, a new visitors center, community gardens and our first water features. This will build upon the existing 200 acres of space regularly programmed with free public activities.

With a 2013 schedule featuring the unveiling of a 30-acre expansion, the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon and the Great Park XPO, a world’s fair of clean, renewable and efficient energy, as well as the return of Cirque du Soleil, we expect to surpass 1 million visitors for the first time.

This will add to the 1.5 million people from all over Orange County and beyond who have enjoyed the Great Park since it opened in 2007, including more than 600,000 in 2011 alone. It’s exciting to witness this momentum because, as The Times points out, we have faced severe challenges.

When the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro was sold in 2005 by the federal government to private developers for $649 million, the expectation was that revenues generated by the private development would fuel the park’s construction. Until the housing market started to slow down in 2006, we all embraced the notion of a park that would be built “bigger, better and faster.” When the economy shifted, we had to adapt.

We could have fenced off the 1,300 acres dedicated for the park and sat on the $200 million in developer fees we received when MCAS El Toro was sold or decided to stick the Master Plan on a shelf and pack our aspirations away in moth balls. Some people prefer to focus on obstacles. We would rather leverage our opportunities.

If we had a crystal ball, we might have anticipated the worldwide economic downturn that devastated our local real estate market or predicted Sacramento’s unprecedented grab of redevelopment agency funds last year.

When the Great Park Corporation’s board of directors invested in the development of a comprehensive Master Plan, we were investing in a vision. This is the first time a military base has been redeveloped into a park. Everything we have built is consistent with that vision. Where we have adapted, we have done so not to diverge from the plan, but to address infrastructure limitations created by the stalled private development.

It should also be noted that, based on current agreements with the city of Irvine, the private developer is obligated to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in joint backbone infrastructure and runway demolition that will support development of the park plus residential and non-residential development of the former MCAS El Toro.

Embedded in every facet of construction has been our commitment to preserve the heritage of the land. We have restored historic Hangar 244, re-purposed former squadron buildings into the Palm Court Arts Complex and returned active agriculture to what was once James Irvine’s most productive lima bean field.

As for the economics, let me set the record straight. While more than $100 million has been spent on design and construction, building the Great Park requires the demolition of a former military base, which impacts design and construction costs. As for those oft-cited “no-bid contracts,” all contracts are either approved as sole source or competitively bid in accordance with the same procurement requirements as the city of Irvine. We do not get to play by a different set of rules.

The reality is we are playing by the rules and overcoming significant challenges. That’s why it is disappointing to see The Times cast this public initiative in such a negative light. It would be easier to throw up our hands and call it a day, but we are committed to realizing the vision for a Great Park for the people of Orange County. The question should not be why haven’t we accomplished more, but rather how have we accomplished so much.

Beth Krom chairs the Orange County Great Park Corporation Board of Directors and is the mayor pro tem of Irvine, where she has been an elected City Council member since 2000.