In 1993, when the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was decommissioned and set to be closed, it set off a debate that dominated Orange County politics through the remaining years of the 90s: Should that space be an airport?
When all was said and done, about $80 million of public funds was spent from both camps, those who favored the airport and those opposed. It was Irvine and the surrounding cities that emerged victorious, and the airport plan was canned.
While voters in 2001 approved the installation of the Great Park in the space of the Marine base, a project meant to rival New York’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Golden State Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park, efforts to bring the Great Park plans to fruition have been politicized through the years.
On Tuesday, June 27, Irvine Councilmember Tammy Kim attempted to dissolve the board that oversees the Great Park plan development and implementation, saying it is “an outlet for added controversy and confusion.”
In 2003, a nonprofit organization, the Orange County Great Park Corporation, was created “to receive, develop, and operate property and improvements,” according to its articles of incorporation in the Great Park area. Its board is comprised of the mayor and councilmembers and provides recommendations that the same people then vote on.
Hence the board, Kim said in a memo, “constitutes a waste of taxpayer money.”
All members of the Great Park board receive a stipend of $880 a month, meaning that $52,800 of taxpayer dollars is budgeted annually for this. Additionally, taxpayer money is spent on staff time for board meetings and creating the agenda.
“I am on a board recommending something to me,” Kim said. “And I get a stipend for that.”
Residents have also complained, Kim said, saying they are “confused” by the two separate meetings: Irvine City Council meetings and the Great Park board gatherings.
Another concern Kim raised is what she called a lack of oversight governing the Great Park board.
“The transportation committee should look at whatever traffic studies that we have,” she said. “Planning should look at what’s being built. And we should operate like every other part of the city.”
Kim proposed dissolving the board to save money, calling it a “redundant, superfluous entity.”
But her argument did not sway the rest of her council colleagues, and the motion to dissolve the board died without a second at the June 27 meeting.
Councilmember Larry Agran, who has served on Irvine’s City Council on and off since 1978, lauded the “extraordinary progress” by the Great Park board in recent years.
In May, Irvine broke ground on more than 300 acres of amenities in the Great Park, from the Veteran’s Memorial Park and Gardens to 15 acres of lush green botanical gardens, from a 14,000-seat amphitheater in partnership with Live Nation to a retrofitted Hangar 244 with places to eat.
The next phase of development, a $1 billion undertaking, is set to be completed by 2032.
Great Park is already home to a 194-acre sports complex that is twice the size of Disneyland with ball fields, a soccer stadium and sand volleyball courts; trails; an arts pavilion; and, most recently, Wild Rivers.
“It’s not broke. You don’t need to fix it. I don’t want a radical change at this point on a good path,” Agran said. “We ought to stay the course to get things done.”
Irvine’s Great Park board meetings are streamed live via ICTV just as the council meetings are.
And the board discusses projects still in their infancy stages where members can provide direction, such as expanding the Walkable Historic Timeline, or discuss status updates to projects in the works like the cricket stadium.
Big decisions — such as whether to move forward with a 14,000-seat amphitheater or a smaller concert venue — have been taken at joint Great Park board and City Council meetings.
Measure V and OC Grand Jury Report
The Great Park board did not always consist of just councilmembers. From 2003 to 2012, the board had nine directors, including all five members of Irvine’s City Council. However, this was an era criticized for excessive spending, construction delays and leadership divisions.
In January 2013, the-then council majority voted in the wee hours of the morning to cut the nine-person board of directors to just five positions that would be filled by councilmembers. Their argument: the years of lack of development and progress by the board.
Eleven months later, in November 2013, Irvine voters overwhelmingly (over 80%) backed Measure V which established if the nonprofit board governing the Great Park development consisted of more than five members — and if those members aren’t councilmembers — then the nonprofit cannot receive any funds from the city.
By passing Measure V, City Attorney Jeffrey Melching said at Tuesday’s meeting, Irvine voters gave the City Council the final say on all financial matters pertaining to the Great Park.
And Irvine voters also established that the Great Park board is to be a recommending body for as long as it exists, Melching said.
A 2014 OC Grand Jury report called for the dissolution of the nonprofit overseeing the design and implementation of the Great Park because its board of directors are also city councilmembers, who ultimately make the decisions that affect the Great Park.
However, in 2016, Irvine’s council voted to keep in place the Great Park nonprofit. Then-Councilmember Christina Shea said the corporation is needed to shield the city from liability during the Great Park project.