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.

The urban farming agreement, recommended by the park’s board of directors and approved by city council, adds significantly to the existing community gardening operation that has been an integral part of the park since development first began in 2006. This pioneering agreement marks the return of farming to the park land for the first time since Irvine Ranch owner James Irvine II sold a portion of his holdings to the U.S. government 70 years ago to create the air station.

“While most farmland has disappeared in this region as the urban areas expanded and developed, the opposite is happening at the Great Park, where agriculture is growing,” says Mia Lehrer, whose firm, Mia Lehrer + Associates, is a key participant in the park’s planning.

“Sustainability and community health are important values for the park’s master plan, and agriculture adds another dimension to the park’s sustainable nature. Plus, it will provide substantial fresh produce for the region on a year-round basis.”

In addition to the farm, the park will soon open the Great Park Community Garden, allowing residents who want to put their “green thumbs” to good use to obtain a plot of rich soil at the Great Park along with how-to workshops by master gardeners. With the growing list of features and activities, including a summer concert series, movies on the lawn, cooking and soccer demonstrations, Cirque du Soleil, and the signature orange balloon, to name only a few, the park attracted more than 400,000 people in 2010 and 200,000 so far in 2011. About 30 percent of the visitors are from within five miles of the park, another 30 percent from other parts of the county, and a third from outside the county, based on last year’s attendance.

The Landscape Architecture Plan

Ecological well-being is at the top of the park’s list of sustainable goals. Its 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.

“Transforming the sterile expanse of a former Marine airbase into a living landscape is fundamental to the vision of the Great Park,” explains Smith. “The site is very large, flat, and featureless. The biggest challenge we faced is bringing life back to the place, daylighting the streams, creating wetlands and lakes, and re-establishing the site’s habitat of flora and fauna.”

A key component of the park’s ecological character is the Wildlife Corridor--a native habitat restoration reserved for wildlife movement that will be off-limits to park visitors. Another component is the Agua Chinon, a stream trapped in a concrete pipe, which will again 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 surges and ebbs, reintroducing the public to the patterns of seasonal creeks.

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. The park vegetation areas will consist of native “California friendly” plantings. Culturally significant plantings will include orchards, agriculture, and lawns.

Among the palm trees and other plantings in 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 other animals that have been missing from the site.

“With great planning, such as the Great Park, there are lots of ways to create economic, social, and environmental benefits,” explains Lehrer.

“The goal with our public designs is to create spaces that embrace the area’s cultural legacies while meeting a community’s desire to develop viable public facilities and places. It’s also critical to design with the flexibility to allow future generations to utilize the public realm in ways that are consistent with their needs in a sensitive and permanent manner.”

Sustainable Plans

Because of the importance of the park to the region, the park’s designer and managers are focused on the park’s contribution to energy, water, and transportation. With a sustainable plan in mind, officials are well on their way to showing a real commitment to incorporating recycling, remediation, and creative redevelopment into the plan:

Energy --The park plans to install significant renewable-energy generation on-site. Along with major photovoltaics, site lighting will have small photovoltaic cells attached to lamp posts to charge small batteries that will power the lights at night.

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 recycling center. Gravels and cobbles 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 for trail steps.

Water conservation and quality --The park will have an array of natural treatment systems. 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. The park’s irrigation system is designed to maintain optimum plant health while conserving and protecting water resources and the environment.

Hydrology --The park will develop a sustainable hydrology of natural streams and engineered water features. Reclaimed water from the groundwater-reclamation plant will be used to supplement stream flow.

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, permeable paving, curbless edges, and reflective-colored 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 the key to reducing carbon emissions (i.e., greenhouse gas) and maintaining air quality. The park’s internal transportation system includes multiple, overlapping transit modes, enabling visitors to park once in a contiguous parking lot, leaving their vehicles for the day.

Site remediation --The Navy Department is underway with its remediation of contaminated sites within the former base property, the accumulation of 60 years of flight and military operations. Compared to other older bases, the contaminated areas are clearly identified and delineated.

The vision for the Orange County Great Park is to inspire people to rethink their connections to nature, history, the built environment, and the community. The goal is to generate and demonstrate new ideas, insights, and technologies revolving around the environment, economy, and social connections, challenging visitors to appreciate the beauty and complexity of our world and to make changes in 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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A Confluence Of Community And Nature

The Orange County Great Park exists for everyone, reflecting the interests, values, cultures, and social and ethnic backgrounds of Southern California residents from all walks of life. Key elements include:

Sports Park And Fields

At 165 acres, the Sports Park will feature a variety of facilities and programs to accommodate varied athletic interests. Some of the proposed amenities include soccer fields, bat and ball fields, a skateboard complex, a rock-climbing wall, and a field house.

Great Lawn

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.

Great Canyon

The Canyon is the Great Park’s most distinctive element. Two miles long and close to 60 feet deep, the heavily planted canyon is dramatically cooler than the surrounding urban areas. It is 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.

A series of dramatic bridges will allow visitors to cross the canyon at various points, creating many opportunities to enjoy the view. The most dramatic of these bridges is the “Bridge of Two Towers,” which connects a zigzag path across one of the widest parts of the canyon.

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 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.

Cultural Terrace

The Cultural Terrace is the 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.

Wildlife Corridor

A 3-mile-long corridor along the eastern border of the park will provide a comfortable space for wildlife to migrate throughout. 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.

Bryan BuchkoComment