Just as the Great Depression helped complete such famous California parks as Balboa Park in San Diego and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, one of the nation's largest public projects under way today — the 1,347-acre Orange County Great Park in Irvine — could showcase the achievements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
According to Economic Research Associates, the park and contiguous residential/commercial developments could create tens of thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenues over the next 12 years. City officials in Irvine, which is developing the Great Park, have applied for millions of dollars in energy, water, and transportation stimulus funds to support the $1.4 billion effort to make a former military base the final link in a chain of open space stretching from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Current city residents won't pay a dime to build the park because of development fees and tax increment financing. Instead, owners of property to be built in the dedicated redevelopment district will pay for park construction and maintenance through their property taxes.
“Other cities and counties seeking public works projects that could result in substantial economic benefits may want to take a serious look at their own park development,” says Larry Agran, Irvine mayor pro tem and chairman of the Great Park board.
Referred to as the first major metropolitan park of the 21st century by such planning luminaries as the American Society of Landscape Architects, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas in Austin, and the president of interdisciplinary landscape, architecture, and urban design firm Sasaki & Associates, the park combines habitat and preservation areas with sustainable recreation, education, and entertainment venues that the park's designers say are unlike any other city park in the nation. In fact, they've planned for operations to ultimately become carbon neutral.
Recognizing the potential revenue and community-building opportunity inherent in the former 4,700-acre El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which closed in 1999, Irvine's city council established the nonprofit Great Park Corp. to seek partners to finance and develop the decommissioned property.
Governed by a nine-member board of five council members and four public members, the corporation oversees design, construction, and maintenance. Its financial plan sets the funding structure for the park's design, landscaping, and development costs.
Lennar Corp., a public builder and managing partner of the investment consortium Heritage Fields LLC, bought the old military base for $649.5 million at a 2005 online auction. Its former owner, the U.S. Navy, is responsible for mitigating environmental impacts from past operations.
The property was split into two components: Orange County Great Park, the redevelopment's focal point; and the Great Park Neighborhoods, the contiguous residential and commercial community to be developed by Heritage Fields.
As part of Lennar's agreement with Irvine, Heritage Fields deeded the park parcel, valued at $249 million, to the city at no cost. The company has paid half of the $401 million it agreed to pay for the park's infrastructure and other development; to raise the rest it will help create the Mello-Roos Community Facilities District, which — through special tax assessments paid by in-district property owners — will provide funding for public infrastructure and facilities such as roads, parks, and schools.