Green acres amid Orange County's sprawl

A former military base in southern California is being turned into one of nation's largest municipal parks.

Move over, Manhattan. Stand aside San Francisco.

In Orange County, the final hurdle has been cleared for a "County Great Park" that will exceed the size of Central Park and Golden Gate Park put together. The massive park (4,738 acres), located in the former El Toro Air Base, will include riparian corridors and botanical gardens as well as facilities for sports and educational uses. And green space - lots of it - left over for other large urban parks.

In recent years, the cliché of Orange County as a conservative bastion of mirror-skinned high-rises and beachfront mansions has collided with images of mile-upon-mile of Korean, Vietnamese, and Spanish commercial strips. The area is considered America's leading laboratory of "post suburbia" because it lacks a traditional urban core yet provides citizens with most of the consumer, employment, and entertainment options formerly associated only with large cities.

Like other great metropolitan parks, the future "Great Park" is expected to provide the communal open space that can unite the amorphous and sprawling county with a common identity by bringing together disparate ethnic and economic groups. It is also being seen by some as a "quality-of-life" choice by a citizenship that favors open space over development.

"We are finally moving forward with a plan that will transform the future of Orange County," says Irvine Mayor Larry Agran.

From airstrip to fields of green

With the annexation of land approved by the county this month, and a private sell-off to begin in weeks, the multiuse project will rise on the site of the shuttered El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, closed in 1999.

The approval came after years of public debate and a bitterly contested face-off with advocates of a new airport on the same site. It took four citizens' initiatives over several years to finally get voters to choose the park over an airport.

The project is also being touted as a win-win model for the private sell-off of other US bases that were closed in the 1990s. The existing El Toro base will be auctioned off to the highest bidders - in this case, four large parcels - and the result is expected to end the political and bureaucratic wrangling that has plagued this, and other base communities, following base closings.

No cost to citizens

Because of zoning arrangements, and agreements by winning bidders to dedicate swaths of open space to the city along with millions in fees, officials claim the Orange County Great Park will be self-supporting without federal, state, county, and city tax revenues. Nearly 10 years after the county garnered national visibility as the largest US municipality to declare bankruptcy, the Great Park is being touted as a symbol of rebound for the 3 million residents.

"This is a major plus for the Department of Defense and the taxpayer because we are removing the major expense of funding of maintenance and cleanup for this base from the general fund," says Wayne Arny, deputy assistant Secretary of the Navy, which until now has overseen the base. "The city gets a boon because they don't have to own the property but can develop it with plans that can double and triple its value."

Second in size only to Griffith Park, the mostly mountainous and rural park in Los Angeles County, the Orange County Great Park is expected to draw far heavier usage from area residents. Just south of Disneyland, the parkland is nestled between one of Southern California's busiest freeways (I-5) and the foothills of mountains to the East. Now crisscrossed with two major, abandoned runways (8,000 and 10,000 ft.), the acreage also holds once-used officer housing, abandoned barracks, and other storage facilities. A small golf course is already in use and some agriculture land produces strawberries and other crops, harvested by migrants. There is also one renovated building providing classrooms for Cal State Fullerton, which hopes to expand here.

But detractors say the loss of a major airport on the same site will stall the economic growth that could have been provided by billions in commerce generated by better transportation to the area. They hold that a first-class international airport would draw more top corporations to the region, and that without it, residents will continue to be doomed by trips to other regional airports farther away.

There are two other complaints and unknowns. A closed, nine-acre hazardous-waste dump on the property may complicate auction plans, and many residents fear that officials who backed the plan will find a way to pass taxes to support it, if and when private bidders can't foot the entire bill.

Multiple land uses

As the plan stands now, one 1,049-acre parcel will be dedicated to agriculture, senior housing, a university campus (built on existing base facilities) and retail facilities. A second, 1,678-acre parcel will have 1,100 houses, 45 holes of golf, an elementary school, and commercial recreation. A third parcel (610 acres) will include a public transportation center and a transit village adjacent to public transportation. A fourth (204 acres) will include a business park and a wildlife corridor lining the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park to the West, with the Cleveland National Forest to the north and east.

"I am so happy that after all these years the voters of this county have come to their senses and created something lasting for the public benefit," says Alice Franklin, a resident of Santa Ana. "Not only are we getting a world-class park in our midst where we didn't have one before, we are escaping the taxpayer cost of supporting such a giant venture."

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