EDITORIAL: What happened to Orange County’s Great Park?

The name of the park, and the original ambition, were great. But in the 12 years since Orange County voters decided they would rather have a public park on the site of the old El Toro Marine base than a large civilian airport, the size and scope of the Great Park have shrunk, along with public faith in the civic leaders who touted the park so loudly.

In its latest incarnation, the park will include a golf course, sports fields and other suburban amenities, totaling 688 acres. The rest of the land on the former base will be set aside for houses, commercial and industrial projects. This is a far cry from the earlier vision that called for a park about twice as big, with an artificial canyon and cultural center that included museums.

Much of Great Park’s shrinkage wasn’t the fault of Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, the original and longtime leader of the park campaign, and his allies. The housing market went south during the recession, leading to reduced tax revenue. Then state legislation virtually eliminated community redevelopment agencies, which meant the city lost its main source of expected funding.

But the city appears to have had a role in some of the problems, and this has been the source of a recent public uproar both in Irvine and throughout Orange County. Close to $200 million in upfront developers’ fees was spent in the early stages of the park’s planning with too little to show for it. Allegations of cronyism and improper pressure on city staff arose. Irvine’s management of the project was the subject of two sharply critical grand jury reports, in 2006 and 2010.

Last week, the city publicly released several disturbing depositions given by former Great Park executives in an ongoing audit of the park’s early operations. Former CEO Michael Ellzey said in his deposition that millions of dollars were squandered on consultants. Those consultants had such close relationships with Agran, Ellzey said, that he was unable to have much influence on the unusually high fees they were paid, and they pretty much supervised the employees in charge of operations instead of the other way around. One example of money wasted, according to Ellzey: a $100,000-a-month no-bid contract for public relations. The executives said they had fretted about unrealistic plans backed by iffy funding.

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