Though only one fifth of the 1,360-acre Orange County Great Park in Irvine, which was master planned in 2006 by New York landscape architect Ken Smith, has been completed, it has already become one of the most significant recreation centers in the Los Angeles region. Now, however, it appears that Smith’s master plan is on the verge of being largely dismantled. Late in November, Irvine City Council approved a deal allowing Orange County developer Five Point to finish about 688 acres of the park in exchange for the rights to build 4,600 homes on surrounding land.
According to Smith, Five Point’s plan will “water down and scale down” his original master plan. Among other things, he said it will replace his central canyon with a large golf course, replace an interconnected series of parks with standalone ones, reduce free recreation facilities, and ring the whole development with homes.
“I think it’s going to be probably quite altered,” said Smith. “They’re very good about saying that they’re following the master plan even when they’re picking it apart,” he said of city leaders, who voted 3-2 in favor of the new direction. Smith said he had been left out Five Point’s planning.
Courtesy Ken Smith; Fivepoint Communities
“We haven’t talked to Ken for a while frankly,” said Wright Sherman, a partner at San Francisco–based architecture firm WRNS Studio, who was brought on by the Great Park Corporation (GPC) to lead planning going forward. “But it’s not atypical that a master plan needs to stand on its own and a project this big needs to take a lot of players and perspectives to make it happen.”
According to GPC documents, the additional 688 acres, built over the next five years, will include a sports park, walking trails, a bosque area, a wildlife corridor, the golf course, and agricultural area improvements. The cost to Five Point for the undertaking has been estimated at $172 million.
Sherman said that his team wanted to follow the spirit of Smith’s plans, but acknowledged that there had been some changes, mostly due to budget constraints. The new budget is less than a third of the original, he said. The biggest change is the addition of the golf course, while others include less intensive land forming and changes to the overall shape of the project.
“You’re not going to get the level of intensity that was originally intended. You can get a lot of it if you’re really smart about how to spend a dollar,” said Sherman, who hopes to “push [Five Point] as far as they can swallow,” in terms of design. One aspect the firm will try to maintain is the connectivity that Smith delineated in his master plan. The remaining acres of the park, which are in limbo pending funding, focus largely on cultural facilities.
Five Point failed to respond to requests for comment as of press time.
Local voters first approved The Great Park, sited on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, in 2002. Smith’s original plan envisioned linear parks, recreation fields, amphitheaters, a wildlife corridor, a man-made canyon, and a large lake. The recession and the abolition of California’s redevelopment agencies quickly stalled many of these plans, although almost 230 acres have been built.
Supporters of the Five Point plan say that due to monetary constraints, this is the only legitimate option for the project. “The situation in Irvine has changed and we need to change along with it,” said councilman Jeff Lalloway, who voted in favor of the Five Point’s plan. He argues that the new plans are “generally consistent with the master plan.”
Councilwoman Beth Krom countered that there was no reason to take this deal now, when public money could be forthcoming in the future. “I don’t support private developers being given control of 668 acres of public land,” she said. “Our backs are not against the wall. That was a false narrative created by the developers. It’s not easy to push vision over profit here in Orange County.”