What’s Happening to Orange County Great Park’s Master Plan?

Is Orange Country Great Park’s master plan becoming irrelevant or simply evolving in the face of new economic and political realities? According to The Orange County Register, the master plan for the nearly 1,500-acre park, which was created by Ken Smith Workshop West along with Mia Lehrer + Associates, is being dramatically altered, raising questions as to whether the nearly $50 million spent in planning documents and designs is being wasted. On the other hand, some argue, the Great Park, with its massive scale, will take decades to complete, and perhaps it’s only natural that components of the park evolve over time and diverge from initial plans.

For The Orange Country Register, it’s about the money spent and the credibility of Irvine’s planning process. Changes to the master plan may raise questions about the “philosophy” of the Great Park leaders, “who brushed off early calls to speed up construction and instead developed detailed plans for the entire park that cover hundreds of thousands of pages. Should officials, in retrospect, have put off extensive designs until projects were set in stone?” 

Background on the Planning and Design Process

Irvine is apparently known for investing heavily in planning. An international design competition yielded proposals from around the world. After Ken Smith, ASLA, won the competition, the first step was creating a master plan at a cost of $10 million. The master plan, which won an ASLA analysis and planning award, called for turning the site, the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, into a “living landscapes” bigger than Balboa Park in San Diego and setting a “new standard for sustainability, ecological restoration, and public space in Southern California.”

In September 2007, the planning commission of the city of Irvine approved Smith’s ambitious master plan, which kicked-off a process of creating “schematic design that includes nearly 90 reports and nearly 1,000 sets of drawings” at a cost of $40 million. Those more detailed designs analyzed the entire park and provided about 30 percent of the detail needed before construction.

The Orange County Register writes that planning and design phase took “months and eventually years,” and some city officials began to lose patience with the process. In a 2008 letter, Supervisor Bill Campbell said: “I’m disappointed to see so much rhetoric and attention surrounding the Great Park without the results to back it up.” A Irvine businessman and former council candidate Mitch Goldstone also made a campaign out of: “Where is the Great Park?”

In 2009, the schematic designs were completed. To defend the time and money spent on planning and designing this massive park, Councilman Larry Agran said: “I think this provides an answer to those who, largely out of ignorance, have asked, ‘What have you been doing the last few years?’ and ‘Where have the tens of millions of dollars been spent?'” If you want to do something on this scale that is this great, you have to invest the money up front in planning and design, because the payoff is enormous.”

Changes to the Plan

The original intent of the designs are still in place, but there have been major revisions:

First, the upper segment of a proposed 2.5-mile man-made canyon is “dramatically narrower than originally envisioned, the result of adjustments in the layout of privately built homes that will surround the park.” According to Ken Smith’s master plan, the original vision of the Canyon was a recreational space, ecologically restored:

“The Canyon is a beautiful oasis—a place to wander and daydream—a place for families to picnic and for children to explore. Within the Canyon, a perennial stream and ponds, reflective of southern California’s foothill and lowland aquatic habitats, will support a wide variety of native plants and animals. The Canyon will also showcase unusual habitats, including vernal pools, rock outcrops, and fern grottoes.”

Second, another area called the “Cultural Terrace” is also facing changes. The original master plan called for demolition of existing buildings to create space for four new buildings for museums and a library. The new plan calls for reusing existing buildings, meaning the new museum buildings proposed may not be built. A planned 26-acre lake may shrink, while a 68-feet-long “conservatory bridge” over the lake may be cut. A 90-acre botanical garden with 2,500 fruit trees will be moved and reconfigured. A “promenade of senses” will now be a parking lot (creating a new promenade of exhaust fumes and oil leakages). 

Lastly, in areas where there has been construction, there have been additional changes. The Orange Country Register writes that “they include moving a planned aviation museum to a different section of the park, placing a parking lot where sports fields were expected and possibly building a meadow and ice-hockey center where a soccer field and parking lot were anticipated.” Learn more about aspects of the completed segment, the Observation Balloon Preview Park

A New Economic Reality

The changes are said to all be efforts to save money and provide “amenities that park leaders say will maximize public benefit.” The recession has meant that private development at the Marine Corps Air Station has been postponed, which has then delayed financing for crucial park infrastructure. Great Park CEO Mike Ellzey told them: “Master plans change. We will be able to use a substantial part.”

The issues may be political as well. Councilman Jeff Lalloway, one of two Republicans on the Democrat-dominated council, said: “They spent all this money up front to plan things, (but) market conditions and a whole variety of variables come into play. Determining what should be built is an evolving concept.” For example, Lalloway and others doubt whether initial plans for the man-made 2.5-mile long canyon will actually get built. However, Democrat city officials, including the Mayor, still support the canyon, which will “build some type of contour” into a remarkably flat brownfield site. The designers also included the canyon to help restore the ecological health of the site and region, providing a wildlife corridor in a place previously unfriendly to nature.

In making a case for investing in a comprehensive master plan for a park that is nearly double the size of NYC’s Central Park, Councilman Agran said: “There are folks who are frankly just plain ignorant – and determined to stay ignorant – about what it means to master-plan a community and master-plan a park. We could do things on a piecemeal basis without a master plan, chunk by chunk, hiring a new designer every time. But that’s not the Irvine way, and the Irvine way has proven successful.” 

Learn more about the evolving plan, and see the original, approved comprehensive plan as well as the first completed segment, the Observation Balloon Preview Park. Smith collaborator, Mia Lehrer, FASLA, also talks about the vision of the park.

Image credits: (1) Orange County Great Park (see larger, uncropped image) / Great Park DESIGN STUDIO, (2-3)  Orange County Great Park Canyon / Great Park DESIGN STUDIO

2 thoughts on “What’s Happening to Orange County Great Park’s Master Plan?

  1. Hmmmmm 01/09/2012 / 10:07 am

    Master plans are living documents subject to change.

    It would be nice to stay true to the original plans. It takes real commitment to enact a bold vision like this one. The politicians don’t have much patience for a 50 year time frame for buildout. They won’t be around to get credit for the ribbon cutting.

  2. mark 05/27/2012 / 12:03 am

    Ice Hockey!!! Love it! Bring it on Great Park!

    MIT Alum signing off

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