The Project Of The Century

Redeveloping a World War II-era military base in the center of a major urban area into a 21st-century metropolitan park is no easy task. But after five years of planning and initial development, the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., has taken a significant step forward with the opening of its western sector that includes a large commercial agriculture operation.

The 200-acre phase also encompasses several new features, such as soccer fields, a museum, and an arts complex that greatly enhance the park’s recreational, cultural, and social opportunities.

The 1,347-acre park is being developed by the city and the Great Park Corporation on the site of the former 4,700-acre El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The 60-year-old base–once America’s sentinel on the West Coast and home to a generation of Marine Corps airmen–was closed in 1999 as part of the Defense Department’s Base Closure and Realignment process.

On February 16, 2005, the El Toro air station was sold in its entirety via an online auction conducted by the Department of Defense to the Lennar Corporation in the most successful base auction to date, generating $649.5 million paid to the federal government. As part of Lennar’s post-purchase agreement with the city to develop the Great Park neighborhoods, which will privately develop residential, commercial, and educational segments on the land, Lennar dedicated the site to the city at no cost. This partnership secured the land-use and financing mechanism now being used to design and develop the park.

The Western Sector

Being developed at a cost of $70 million, the western sector encompasses several key components that will help define the park’s character and texture. The two newest features are the Palm Court Arts Complex and the North Lawn sports field. The $6.5-million arts complex is set to be the southland’s most distinctive center for performance arts, to showcase art exhibitions, and to house the Great Park Artists in Residence program.

Adorned with 54 Canary Island date palms, the Palm Court and adjoining Terraced Lawn will be a festival space for events and outdoor performances. The 19.5-acre North Lawn will feature free sports clinics for soccer, football, field hockey, badminton, and more. It will also be a place for picnics and recreation.

Noting that the park’s development has overcome many challenges during the past several years to reach its current stage, Beth Krom, chair of the park’s board of directors and also mayor pro-tem of the city council, points out that while the park doesn’t have a “perfect model” of previous park planning and development to follow (such as New York City’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park), it is nevertheless evolving into a regional facility in the heart of the county that will be “truly unparalleled.”

Ken Smith, a New York City landscape architect, who is the park’s lead designer, states that the western sector addresses what he sees as the park’s three important elements: history, culture, and nature.

In harkening back to the county’s early history, agriculture plays a prominent role in the park’s development. The park’s management entity recently leased 114 acres of the park’s western sector to Orange County Produce LLC for a commercial agricultural operation called the Great Park Community Farm. Orange County Produce is owned and operated by the Kawamura family, the county’s leading farming family.

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