Swing-vote councilman’s last-minute proposal puts Irvine in charge of operating and maintaining the park. Sports fields, a golf course and trails are planned; and 4,606 more houses will be built next door.
IRVINE – The Orange County Great Park will have 688 acres of sports fields, a golf course, trails and more along with 4,606 more houses neighboring it after the City Council voted 3-2 early Wednesday in a vote that alters the park’s future.
It was hardly that simple, though.
Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway, considered the swing vote since he suggested and voted to postpone an earlier vote two weeks ago, maintained his poker face until just before midnight Tuesday.
That’s when he revealed the conditions he would need met before he would agree to the plan proposed by developer FivePoint Communities to spend about $200 million toward building parts of the Great Park, in return for FivePoint being allowed to build homes on its property east of the park.
“Why not lay my cards out on the table?” Lalloway said.
His demands ignited a last-minute frenzy of deal brokering and huddles among the developer and city officials during a 10-minute recess that stretched longer as people read the legal language of Lalloway’s requests for the first time.
At one point, Lalloway and Emile Haddad, CEO of FivePoint Communities, stood inches apart on the steps inside the council chambers talking about the proposal. Haddad left and came back, closing his flip phone in his hand, asking if anyone had seen where Lalloway had gone. The councilman had walked into the area on the side of the dais where council members typically exit for closed session, or emerge from after a break.
“Can I go back?” Haddad asked no one in particular, and then he did.
In the meantime, Councilwoman Christina Shea and Mayor Steven Choi huddled with FivePoint representative Brian Myers and FivePoint staff. After Haddad returned, Choi went up to him, visibly agitated, holding Lalloway’s three-page proposal in one hand.
The new deal points were so last-minute that there weren’t even enough printed copies for the city clerk or FivePoint. City Manager Sean Joyce lent his copy to the developer.
Lalloway wanted the city to assume control of the park features right away once FivePoints begins to finish them starting in 2016, and not wait to vote on whether the city should take over at a later date. FivePoint had proposed handling the operations and maintenance through 2023, spending an estimated $10 million. Now, instead, FIvePoint will pay the city $10 million over time.
“I will defend to the death Irvine’s ability to run its parks,” Lalloway said before the vote.
Lalloway also wanted more improvements to Marine Way, the primary entrance to the park off Sand Canyon Avenue north of I-5. FivePoint already is obligated to make substantial improvements to the road, but the developer agreed to provide an additional $10 million worth of work on the entry’s right of way starting in 2018 to satisfy Lalloway.
“I’m not really happy about it,” Choi said of Lalloway’s last-minute additions.
Choi and Shea had been ardent supporters of FivePoint’s proposal. Shea questioned the need for the city to seize control of the operations and maintenance of the park features right away without really researching what it would cost the city.
“It’s a big switch,” she said.
Still, she voted in favor of the motion along with Lalloway’s additions, as did Lalloway and Choi. The three, part of a political alliance that had fractured in recent months, also voted in favor of certifying the developer’s environmental impact report and to grant it a general plan amendment and zone change allowing the company to build 4,606 homes instead of 410,000 square feet of commercial space.
The developer still plans to develop nearly 5 million square feet of commercial and mixed-use development east of the park. Council members Larry Agran and Beth Krom voted not to approve the environmental report, the amendment and zone change and FivePoint’s proposal to build more than half of the Great Park.
After the last vote at 1:48 a.m., Haddad said he felt “excited and relieved. And now I just want to go get some sleep.”
The nearly 10-hour meeting followed days of discussions behind the scenes between the developer and the city after a vote on the proposals was postponed at an eight-hour meeting two weeks ago.
What would happen to acreage at the former El Toro Marine base has been a tense issue for decades even before the 2002 countywide Measure W vote that determined the land’s destiny: It would be a park, akin to Central Park in New York, and not an airport.
A private developer, Lennar, bought all of the land and gave Irvine more than 1,000 acres for a park. The city sought a designer and chose New York landscape architect Ken Smith, who crafted a master plan in 2007 for a park that was expected to cost $1.4 billion to build.
The city had its hopes set on redevelopment funding to pay for it, but redevelopment disappeared in early 2012. In the ensuing years, the city spent a majority of some $200 million it received in developer fees to build the park and the developer struggled amid the Great Recession. FivePoint emerged as a spinoff of Lennar.
After the meeting, Lalloway called FivePoint the city’s partner.
Krom called the process “sloppy” during the meeting and likened it to a leg amputation gone wrong. Better a swift single slice than a messy operation, she said.
Agran, who showed concern about the location of a proposed fifth high school, also said he didn’t like the golf course and that the city would be stuck with it if they approved the deal with FivePoint. He asked FivePoint representative Myers if the developer would consider giving it up and removing it from the design.
“The answer is no. Unequivocally,” Myers said.
FivePoint has said it added the golf course when a city subcommittee suggested the developer come up with a way to make the park financially self-sufficient. The golf course could support some areas of the park that wouldn’t be taking in any revenue.
Lalloway also said he wanted the location of a proposed golf clubhouse moved, although he didn’t indicate where. Myers assured him, though, that the city could ask that it be moved at a later time.
Wednesday’s vote also indicated that designer Smith’s master plan would need to be amended.
Responding to criticism that the proposal focused too much on sports fields, FivePoint showed a short online video clip of Smith saying that a sports park would be one of the first elements developed, and listing sports fields that would be included.
“Thank you Ken Smith for describing our sports park pretty accurately,” said Myers, to laughter as well as applause and some boos.
The proposal has sharply divided the council and public. There are those wanting to see the park built sooner rather than later and those who want to stick to a master plan that has so far resulted in 76 developed acres, a helium balloon ride, carousel and four soccer fields, among other features. An additional 105 acres have been developed as farm land by A.G. Kawamura’s Orange County Produce.
Early in the meeting, Lalloway said he would do what was best for the residents of Irvine, “and I will not bow to political pressure. Period.”