It has been over ten years since the U.S. Marines departed Orange County, taking with them a huge part of our history and leaving huge pieces of contaminated land in its place. El Toro and Tustin, both Marine Corps Air Stations, were decommissioned in 1999 as part of the Base Closure and Realignment Act. Both were also turned over to local authorities to redevelop into housing and other uses. And, while Tustin largely lanquished for years due to the recession, Larry Agran and the city of Irvine had bigger plans for El Toro, including the Orange County Great Park. Billed as the, ” first great metropolitan park of the 21st Century”, the Great Park Corporation mission statement says it is preserving and protecting the Orange County Great Park for the benefit and enjoyment of all its visitors.
Yet, while the mission statement is laudible, the actions of the corporation and its predecessors, particularly the Irvine City Council has been questionable. Under Larry Agran, the city council quickly wrested control of the base from the Orange County Supervisors, who had originally sought the base as an industrial airport. A park board was quickly formed with the city clearly in control with a majority vote. Contracts were issued and work begun on the park… sort of. Anyone visiting the park, ten years later, may wonder where the money went.
More than $200 million dollars later, the Great Park has little to show for its efforts. An Orange helium ballon lifts visitors 400 feet above 200 or so acres of park development. A plaza of sorts plays host to a variety of events including a weekly farmers market and seasonal events for halloween and,this year, a New Years Eve bash. Yes, that is a million taxpayer dollars for every acre of park so far. The worst is, much of the development, like Hangar 244, was already there and required nothing more than refurbishment to use. And, according to the LA Times, much of the development is leased out to agriculture. The runways, left largely intact, are rented for a variety of uses, none of them parklike.
So, where did the money go?
Meet Ken Smith, architect of the OC Great Park. Hailed as a visionary, I remember seeing pictures of the flamboyant designer with huge oversized glasses and a comedic grin bursting onto the pages of the Register and the OC version of the LA Times. He was billed as part savior and part nutcase by those that either stood with him or against him. There were frequent photos of the Ken Smith entourage showing off plans or the occasional finished feature. The Great Park was the largest project he had ever worked on. His commanding price tag, that would eventually reach $42.7 million dollars, was matched only by his enthusiasm for the project. His lack of experience for a job this size was made up for by assembling an equally high priced group of designers and architects. Even the Great Park website billed him as “world renowned” even though he was probably the least qualified of the companies the Board interviewed.
Smith quickly went to work on what was to eventually be not much more than a huge publicity stunt. Plans were developed for a 1400 acre park that would encompass sports fields fit for the children of kings (or, at least Irvinites). The big Orange helium balloon was quickly put into service and you could here the oohs and aahs from miles around as it rose high above the landscape. Scarcely a week went by when the Register or the LA Times didn’t run an article or two on the “progress” of the Great Park.
The glamour has faded, though, and the reality of a state wracked in recession met the fiscal imprudence of the Great Park Board. In last year’s contentious race for the Irvine City Council, the Great Park became the football of choice for Councilmember Jeff Lalloway and what would eventually become the new majority. This month, the city council, sans Agran, voted to reduce the number of Great Park Boardmembers to the sitting city council, thereby relieving them of any further outside influence. The new, reduced, board also took immediate steps to axe the million dollar public relations firm, Forde & Mollrich as well as their lobbyist, Townsend Public Affairs. Councilwoman and former chair of the GP Board, Beth Krom, believes that is a mistake while Lalloway believes the PR and Lobbyist are unnecessary as city staff should be able to handle those tasks.
Lalloway, like many in the county, is unhappy with the progress of the Great Park. The Park was not getting much in return for the $1.1 million dollars plus expenses the two firms were charging for their services each year. “We need to stop talking about building a great park and start actually working on building the great park,” Lalloway said.
Lalloway has a lot of support throughout the county. Aside from some bloggers laughingly calling for a revival of the airport idea, most proponents simply want the city to stop talking about building a park and get on with actual construction.
During his swearing in to the OC Board of Supervisors, 5th District Supervisor Todd Spitzer who supports Lalloway’s position said, “I’ve always been 100 percent supportive of the vision of the Great Park,” Spitzer said. “However, it’s been more than a decade and $220 million in expenditures and there’s very little to show for it.” Spitzer also challenged the new city council saying, if they couldn’t do any more than the previous council, the county should look at an initiative to turn it back to county hands.
That scenario might be nice to think about but is probably undoable. After being given the reins of the Great Park years ago, the city annexed the land, making it part of the city. “It’s city of Irvine property,” Lalloway said. “The voters can’t vote to take it away from us.” Likewise, the idea of the Great Park reverting back to an industrial airport is dim since the only ones who would be able to vote on the issue would be city of Irvine residents. They, along with the residents of surrounding areas like Tustin, are not likely to warm up to that idea.
Can the park be built? Surely, with the demise of Redevelopment Agencies and the loss of over a billion dollars in funding, the task is much more difficult. It is certainly time to look at alternatives, including downsizing and obtaining partnerships from developers to build something more realistic. That doesn’t mean the Great Park can’t still be. But, whatever finished product is envisioned by Lalloway and the city council, progress needs to be made. That means feet to the floor and shovels in the ground.
What’s next? The Great Park will be host to the Department of Energy sponsored Solar Decatholon, a huge event to be held in October 2013. Agran believes the firing of the Great Park’s PR firm will harm the prospects of a successful event. Lalloway disagrees and plans continue for what is billed as one of the largest “green” events in the world, showcasing green technology in everyday construction. If the GP Board/Irvine City Council can pull it off (we think they can) it will be a big feather in their cap and, possibly, a portent of better days for the park that isn’t.
We heard from Tustin Councilmember Deborah Gavello regarding tonight’s agenda item on the Jamboree Road at I-5 Construction. She had previously asked for information regarding the construction. As she put it:
The fact is that Irvine is paying for the widening of this very busy street improvement. Which is great, but one could put up with it, if it was quick. I believe the 10 freeway that collapsed was fixed in a month, this is taking too long, and our options are limited. Although, not a perfect option for many who live off of Jamboree, one can take Tustin Ranch Road, then come back through Walnut Avenue, then join Jamboree, or pay to get on the toll road at Portolla or Irvine Blvd which joins Jamboree past the 5 freeway. This becomes expensive if used on a daily basis.
There is an old expression, ” There is No such thing as a free lunch”. I really believe this is the case with the Jamboree and I-5 freeway expansion project, as the work here has been going at a snails pace. I reached out with an email to Mayor Pro Tem [Beth] Krom in Irvine asking if we could discuss this. I asked our city staff to set up a meeting for me or for them with Cal Trans to see if we could light a fire under them to get this job completed.
I think most residents think it is just a headache, that they have no choice but to deal with it every morning and evening. But I believe as an elected official, when I see something that is wrong, I do everything in my power to fix it. That is why I believe the people voted for me, that I would look out for them, so they could focus on their everyday busy lives. I like doing this job, and I enjoy solving big issues. I can’t wait until Tustin Ranch Road is completed so we can move people more easily in and out of our city. Then they can go to work where they must, but return to Tustin to live and shop.
Republicans like to say they are fond of minimalist government intrusion. In practice, that usually means promoting less business regulation, moving jobs to foreign countries that don’t have those pesky employee safeguards, all while stifling the personal freedoms of U.S. citizens and limiting their ability to grab a piece of the American Dream. In a grand scale, the perfect example is the so called “Patriot Act” that, in its all encompassing effort to ensure domestic security, managed to heavily trample the Constitution and its Bill of Rights in the process. Republicans could not pull in fast enough behind George “W” on the largest mass infringement of civil rights in U.S. history (does anyone else’s skin crawl when they hear the term, “Homeland Security”?).
We saw this minimalist Republican model the other night on a much smaller scale in the City of Irvine. There, the city council Republicans came together with their Democratic brethren on the dais to unanimously vote to enact an ordinance that would prohibit furnishing alcohol to minors by “social hosts”. Even OC Board of Supervisors candidate, Todd Spitzer jumped on the bandwagon, stating on his Facebook page that the topic was a good public policy discussion. If he had left it at that, it would have been fine. But, he went all out for this “new” law, showing up at the Irvine City Council meeting to throw in his two cents worth. “I just want to make clear that serving alcohol to minors in a private home is not a private matter.”
While we don’t agree with Steve Greenhut’s characterization of Sptizer as a demagogue, we do think Todd is grandstanding a bit to show off the law & order platform he is building for the County Supervisors race. That he is deeply involved with MADD and other crime victim organizations doesn’t hurt. But, he clearly got this wrong. Todd likes to tout how he was a reserve police officer for LAPD for years and, in fact, has recently applied for reserve status with the Orange County Sheriffs Department. So, he should know this law is unnecessary.
I don’t disagree that underage teenage drinking and adults who allow underage drinking for pretty much any reason, is wrong. And, if there weren’t already adequate state laws on the books prohibiting “social hosts” from furnishing alcohol to minors, this law could be necessary. But the state laws (and Todd should know this), many of which come under the Business and Professions Code, specifically prohibit adults from buying or furnishing minors with alcohol. Transgressors may be fined, imprisoned in county jail or both. So why, then, does Irvine need their very own nanny-state law? Are Irvinians special? Are they a tougher breed of scofflaw?
Perhaps it is the fact that, under the “new” law (or ordinance as it is called in city-speak), violators can be fined up to $3,000 per violation. This gives the city’s finest a vested interest in writing up violators under the new code. And, having firsthand experience with Irvine’s underage drinking crowd, I imagine they will be raking money, levied from inflated fines, into the city coffers at a pretty good rate. So, is this what it is really all about? If so, then you can see how Spitzer’s armor may have gotten a little more tarnished in many libertarian camps.
It is unfortunate that most local politicians have lost the true meaning of leadership and, instead, have come to focus on running their cities on a for-profit basis (when not trying to figure out what office to run for next). The only real difference between Democrats and Republicans, in this respect, is that Republicans think the proceeds should be meted out to their cronies, often in the form of no-bid contracts. Democrats, on the other hand, think everything can be handled in-house by government employees. The reality falls somewhere in between.
While Republicans voice their ire at over regulation and laws they think hamper business growth, they should also shun unnecessary laws that infringe on the personal rights of citizens for the sole purpose of padding government coffers. The old adage by Henry David Thoreau, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least‘”, should ring true in every Republican heart. So, Todd, where is that spirit of Thoreau?
The other night, I finally stopped by the Irvine Civic Center to check out the latest in the @Occupy movement, OccupyOC or OccupyOCIrvine. There has been quite a bit written about a movement that started on Wall Street and has swept across America, with folks from every background joining in. Occupy Irvine was, apparently, the first in Orange County. But, there have been several other Occupy [insert city here] throughout the Real OC, including Fullerton, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach. In fact, there are over 10 Occupy cities in our fair county. Yes, there is even going to be an OccupyTustin on November 4th at 3pm in front of the Wells Fargo bank at Newport and Irvine Blvd.
Back to Irvine. I wanted to stop and talk to a few of these folks for myself and see what, if any, message they were trying to convey to the public. What I found was a small group of standard bearers (it was 11:30 pm) holding their ground until the next day when the larger group would get together again. They had been forced off the grass onto the sidewalk but everyone I saw seemed to be in great spirits. In keeping with the anonymous nature of the movement, I did not ask names. I did not seek anyone in particular out to speak with. I didn’t have to. Of the thirty or so folks who were out there, many of them came up to me when I pulled my motorcycle up on the side of the road next to them. Of course, the first thing I asked was, where are the cops?
One young man told me they had not had a police presence for the past day or two. That said a lot to me. This eclectic group of people were so peaceful and orderly, the police did not need to do much more than swing by once in awhile to check on them. They moved off the grass when told to and moved back on in the morning, when Irvine’s “parks” open back up for general use. So, what about the message? One young lady, the wife of a United States Marine, said it best I think, when she said, “I have no voice in this Country.”
Listening to a few of them speak, it was quite clear. The overriding theme was, “end corporate greed”. They specifically told me they were not looking for handouts. They were looking for a fair shake. While some did tout an increase in government services to the poor and elderly, most simply wanted to have the ability to make a life for themselves in spite of the fact that megacorporations, aided by the government, were working daily to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. That was a pretty clear message and one I could not disagree with. Of course, there were lots of signs up and everyone there was advertising some different aspect of the overall message. Once thing was clear – they were going to be around for awhile.
So, last Saturday, there was supposed to be a culmination of the Occupy Movement at the Santa Ana Civic Center area. Some reports had the group pegged at about 120 protesters. Pictures and reports from the OC Weekly showed quite a larger crowd in front of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building. The Santa Ana Police Department was so worried about this being a major riot, they called in the mounted patrol. At that site, four members of the protest group were arrested, cited and released for camping in the area after hours. The police had, apparently, explained the protesters would not be able to camp out after 8 pm. Interestingly, many of the homeless who inhabit the area stood (or laid) side-by-side with the protesters. One of them had it right on when he said, “They are protesting for me”.
Should you think the Occupy movement is just a bunch of disgruntled, out of work college kids, think twice. OccupyOCIrvine has seen as many as 1000 protesters and as few as 20 or 30, who are willing to brave the cold and the isolation of an Irvine thoroughfare in the middle of the night. As one Twitter feed said,
@execplatinum: #OccupyIrvine looks like a commercial for Abercrombie & Fitch, Juicy Couture and Mercedes Benz” lol. 99%=everybody but 1.
They are lawyers, doctors, blue collar workers, bankers, students and housewives who are fed up with the pending demise of Middle Class America.
The City of Irvine “accidentally” turned the sprinklers on them one night. Subsequently, they attended Tuesday night’s city council meeting where they respectfully stood their ground and won some concessions from the City Council to be able to stay on the grass and, in some way, camp. They had plenty of support from the community. Councilmember Steven Choi commended them for their actions, saying they should be proud of themselves. They did not come to riot, they came to stand up for the 99 percent. And, they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.
Councilmember Larry Agran said, “This is a new kind of demonstration.” It is, Larry, it is. And, it may be here to stay.