The Project Of The Century

Redeveloping a World War II-era military base into a 21st-century metropolitan park is no easy task. But after three years of planning, the Great Park Corporation Board approved in May the first major development of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Considered a large step forward, it will move the park toward its goal of being one of the largest metropolitan parks created in the United States in the past 100 years.

The 1,347-acre park is being developed by the city and its Great Park Corporation on the site of the former 4,700-acre El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The 57-year-old base--once America’s sentinel on the West Coast and home to generations of Marine Corps airmen--was closed in 1999 as part of the Defense Department’s Base Closure and Realignment process.

Encompassing 500 acres on the park’s western edge, the development plan is estimated to cost $61.16 million, and preliminary construction could begin this year. The work will include moving 2.6-million cubic yards of soil within the park boundaries, and removing 185,000 cubic yards of runway to create distinct park districts that are part of the overall master plan.

Some specific features within the 500-acre site include:

· Eight tournament-level soccer fields in the 165-acre Sports Park

· A 27.5-acre Preview Park surrounding the Great Park Balloon, which takes visitors aloft for a bird’s-eye view

· A 20-acre lake

· A “working farm”

· Event lawns

· Picnic meadows

· A cultural terrace site

· A performance bowl

· 7.3 miles of walking and bicycle paths

The planned development also encompasses a 125-acre agricultural district with community gardens, and may include row crops and a tree nursery populated with 5,000 Valencia Olinda citrus trees donated to the park.

Construction Counts

According to a study by Economic Research Associates (ERA), building the park will be a boon to Southern California’s economy, creating thousands of new jobs and economic vitality over the next 12 years. The study was commissioned to more fully understand the potential economic impact of the project.

Few industries have felt the brunt of Southern California’s recession more than the construction industry. With hardly any new housing, office buildings, shopping centers, bridges or schools being built, the state lost 90,000 construction jobs last year. According to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, Southern California’s construction industry can expect to lose 50,700 jobs this year and another 35,700 jobs in 2010.

Against this backdrop, the Great Park is a bright spot, and projections of its fiscal impact are impressive. According to the report, construction and activities associated with building the park and adjacent residential/commercial developments could add tens of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars to Southern California’s economy over the next 12 years. Specific economic benefits include adding approximately $23.9 billion to the region’s Gross Regional Product (GRP) by 2020. The study also projects that 31,500 new jobs could be created by the park and adjacent private and public development.

“We knew when we started planning the Great Park three years ago that it would bring a significant number of new jobs and economic vitality to Orange County and Southern California,” says Mike Ellzey, CEO of the Great Park Corporation. “If this park has this potential level of economic benefit for Southern California, other parts of the country may also benefit economically from their own park development. When looking for public-works projects with long-term benefits, I think this potential must be considered seriously by the federal and state governments.”

Much of the preliminary work is “shovel ready” and could be under construction soon as the approved phase moves ahead. “Considering the dire state of the construction industry, development of the Great Park provides the economic stimulus where it is most needed,” the ERA study states.

The Landscape Architecture Plan

Ecological well-being is at the top of the Great Park list of sustainable goals. Transforming the sterile expanse of the El Toro air base into a living, robust landscape is fundamental to the vision of the park. Its ecological vitality will increase the biodiversity value of adjacent preserves, from the mountains to the north to the coastal preserves near Laguna Beach, to the south. Natural waterways will be reestablished, and historic habitats will be restored, bringing back the county’s natural heritage. This will help maintain a healthy, natural environment in the region.

A key component of the park’s ecological character is the Wildlife Corridor--a native habitat restoration reserved for wildlife movement, which will be off-limits to park visitors. Another component is the Agua Chinon, a stream trapped in a concrete pipe, which will also be “daylighted.” Trails will enable the public to experience a mosaic of habitats for relaxation and environmental understanding. The stream corridor will change through the seasons as water-flows surge and ebb.

Vegetation in the park will emphasize native species as a botanical backbone with an overlay of species that are xeric, noninvasive, low-maintenance and well-suited to the climate and conditions. Additionally, culturally significant plantings will include orchards, agriculture and lawns. The park vegetation areas will consist of 61-percent native plantings, and, overall, 75 percent will be “California friendly.”

Among the palm trees and other plantings that will populate the park is a variety of critical habitats, such as vernal pools that support amphibians, specialized plants and other species that require standing water in the spring. Hundreds of acres of wildflower meadows, grasslands, oak and walnut woodlands, coastal sage scrub and varied streamside habitats will support birds, butterflies and animals that have been missing from the site.

Sustainable Plans

Because of the importance of the park to the region, the city is seeking economic-stimulus funding, particularly in the areas of energy, water and transportation. And with a sustainable plan in mind, officials are well on their way to proving just how committed they are to incorporate recycling, remediation and redevelopment into the plan:

· Energy--The park plans to install more than one megawatt of renewable-energy generation on-site. Site lighting will have small photovoltaic cells attached to lamp posts to charge small batteries that will power the lights at night. More than one acre of photovoltaics will cover roofs in the park, and will generate more than 400 kW at peak output; 15 solar collectors containing mirror dishes with a diameter of more than 30 feet will generate more than 500 kW at peak output.

· Recycling--There are more than 600 acres of hard pavement in the site to be removed, and 120 buildings to be dismantled and recycled. All pavements will be recycled at a center located adjacent to the park. Gravel and cobblestones will be reused for infiltration media and roadbed support. Large slabs of concrete dubbed “El Toro stone” will be stacked for retaining walls and waterfalls, as well as laid down for trail steps. Sustainable construction practices will include balancing cut-and-fill to conserve energy and reduce waste-removal from the site; preserving on-site structures by salvaging, reusing or recycling existing materials, such as timber, concrete and asphalt; and specifying local materials to reduce the distance that materials must be trucked.

· Water conservation and quality--The park will have an array of natural treatment systems implemented in a three-stage treatment process. Basically, all areas developed with buildings, roads and other facilities will integrate best-management practices, such as porous pavement, structural-infiltration devices and litter- and debris-entrapment vaults. Monitoring and maintenance will be facilitated by locating the natural-treatment systems next to roads, trails and access ways. The park’s irrigation system is designed to maintain optimum plant health while conserving and protecting water resources and the environment. The water supply for the park is recycled and provided by the Irvine Ranch Water District. No potable water is used to provide supplemental water for the landscape.

· Hydrology--The park will develop a sustainable hydrology of natural streams and engineered water features. Recycled water from the water district and a 20-acre lake will serve as a reservoir for irrigation. Reclaimed water from the groundwater reclamation plant will be used to supplement stream flow. A series of bio-swales also may be constructed to handle and clean on-site runoff, and several natural-treatment wetlands will provide biological cleaning of runoff water.

· Roadways--Runoff in the streets will be captured through bio-swales, infiltration/exfiltration trenches, bio-infiltration and bottomless catch basins. Convenient, expedient and efficient travelways dedicated for buses and future trolley service provide alternatives to cars. Improving shade and reducing heat are accomplished through enhanced tree canopy, use of permeable paving, curbless edges and use of reflective-colored paving material.

· Trail system--Trail systems will be used to promote walking and biking. They will operate from promenades that take visitors directly to their destination while other trails will meander, allowing for a range of experiences that can include walking, jogging and biking. Whether arriving by car or public transportation, the macro-trail system will allow direct access across the park.

· Transportation--Reducing auto-dependence is another key to reducing carbon emissions and maintaining air quality. The park’s internal transportation system includes multiple, overlapping transit modes, enabling visitors to park once and leave their vehicles in a contiguous parking lot. Within the park, visitors can use a tram, or walk or bike on the extensive trail network. Biking will be an important component of the internal transportation system with an emphasis on safe bike trails combined with the “Orange Bike” program that offers visitors the free use of a bike while in the park.

· Site remediation--The Navy Department is well underway with its remediation of contaminated sites within the former base property--the accumulation of 57 years of flight and military operations. However, compared to other older bases, the contaminated areas are clearly identified and delineated.

The vision for the park is that it will inspire people to rethink their connections to nature, history and the community. The goal is to generate and demonstrate new ideas, insights and technologies, challenging visitors to appreciate the beauty and complexity of our world, and to make changes to their own lives to help preserve it.

Christine Rombouts is a freelance writer who covers the real-estate and related industries in California. She can be reached at

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Here’s a view from the top of the various areas of the Orange County Great Park:

The Great Park Balloon

Enjoying the first major attraction of the project, passengers soar between 250 and 400 feet above the surrounding landscape, having a bird’s-eye view of the air station’s transformation into a recreation area.

The Sports Park & Fields

At 165 acres, the Sports Park is planned to feature a variety of sports facilities and programs to accommodate athletic interests, including soccer fields, bat and ball fields, a skateboard complex, a rock-climbing wall and a field house.

A Great Lawn will accommodate picnickers, sunbathers and Frisbee throwers. Large public events can be staged on the Great Lawn. Groves of citrus and acacia trees will remind visitors of Orange County’s rich agricultural heritage.

The Great Canyon

The park’s most distinctive element, the Great Canyon is two miles long and up to 60 feet deep; the heavily planted canyon will be dramatically cooler than the surrounding urban areas. It will be an oasis where visitors can stroll along paths and trails bordered by native palms, woodlands and Mediterranean ornamentals. A perennial stream with a string of small pools will run the length of the canyon.

Nine bridges will allow visitors to cross the canyon at various points, creating many opportunities to enjoy the view. The most dramatic of these is the “Bridge of Seven Turns,” which connects a zig-zag path across one of the widest parts of the canyon.

The Veterans’ Memorial

For more than 50 years, El Toro served the country as a training facility in peacetime and a staging area for support of overseas military operations in times of conflict. The history of the base will be remembered at the Great Park Air Museum, where vintage aircraft will be displayed on remnants of the former runways. A veterans’ memorial will honor those who served our country.

Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden is at the heart of the park. Visitors will be able to observe Southern California’s plants in habitats up-close and in detail. They will be able to experience, in a totally new way, the relationships between people and plants, food and health, society and setting. A “garden bridge” will link the garden to the cultural terrace.

The Cultural Terrace

The Cultural Terrace is the cultural and social center of the park. A 100-foot-wide, tree-lined terrace serves as a key pedestrian and social space linking the major cultural facilities. Here visitors can sip coffee, eat lunch at a cafe, people-watch, drop into the library or museum, or catch the free shuttle to other parts of the park.

The Wildlife Corridor

A three-mile long corridor along the eastern border of the park will provide a safe space for wildlife to migrate throughout the park. This corridor provides a crucial “missing link” between the Cleveland National Forest to the north and Crystal Cove State Park to the south. It will play an important role in preserving a healthy ecosystem throughout Orange County.

Source: Orange County Great Park Corporation