COMMENTARY: Planning a Perfect Park

The First Great National Park of the 21st Century Comes to Irvine, California

Coyotes will be provided with pathways for movement between the mountains and the sea as part of the Great Park plans.© Orange County Great Park

Before Feb. 16, 2005, Irvine, Calif. was just the first city to curbside recycle. And the first city in the world to ban CFCs. But with a donated 1,347 acres of open land through the sale of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Irvine will now have the first great national park of the 21st century.

The land, which is nearly two times the size of New York City’s Central Park, was deeded to the city of Irvine following the purchase of the 4,700-acre military training base. The winning bidder, development firm Lennar Corporation, won the 2005 auction for $649.5 million and has been in strident collaboration with the city of Irvine to create the first national den in Orange County to integrate environment, amusement, and education.

The Final Incarnation

Under the helm of renowned architects Ken Smith and Mia Lehrer, what was once a farming ranch, a military base, and now the beginning stages of what will be Orange County Great Park, will become the first public interest space in Irvine. "If you’re 17 or 18 years old, and you want to hang out in Irvine," says architect Mia Lehrer, "you go to the beach, or you go to the mall. That’s the extent of Irvine." The upcoming Great Park will offer people of all ages other recreational options. "This park can’t be like any other great park, "says Irvine mayor Beth Krom, "because no parcel of land has gone through as many incarnations as this one."

Area developers plan to save over 750 mature trees from the military base to incorporate into the Great Park space. Demolished concrete from aircraft runways, as well as metal from taxiways and hangars will be recycled and reused for the construction of park bridges, benches and walls. More than three million tons of material is expected to be recycled and reused from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which was shut down in 1999.

Saving What’s Left

Former hangars on the site will be recycled and reused for the construction of park bridges, benches and walls.© Kimberly Telker

The park’s focal point will be the creation of a two-mile long, 60-foot deep canyon. Visitors of the park will be able to view its dimensions and natural beauty while walking along paths and biking along trails bordered by native woodlands. Rustic bridges will connect the canyon from various points, and a sewer treatment plant will provide the canyon’s water. Through the use of a four-acre water treatment wetland at the upper end of the canyon, the water will be purified and then recycled to be a continual source of irrigation and wildlife sustenance throughout all of Great Park.Along the eastern border of the Great Park will stand the Wildlife Corridor. Orange County Great Park wildlife biologist Dr. Milan Mitrovich says the main aim of the area is to provide a safe passageway for animals between the Santa Ana Mountains and Southern California’s coastline. He says the current lack of pathways has resulted in a loss of area wildlife, namely bobcats and coyotes.

"When I think about wildlife around here, those are the two species that come to mind," Mitrovich says, "but because they’re so isolated and don’t have much safe means of getting to and from the mountains and the sea, we’ve seen a lot of them getting hit by cars on secondary roads."

In an effort to establish a habitually healthy ecosystem for plant and animal life within the Corridor, developers plan to resuscitate Agua Chinon, a seasonal rainwater creek which has been buried underneath the military base for nearly half a century. "We want to regenerate land and water to bring back a riparian atmosphere," says Sam Allevato, Public Information Officer for the Great Park Design Studio. Once water is brought to drought-stricken California, Allevato guarantees nature regeneration. "I can’t emphasize this enough, "he says. "Once you get water, you get trees. You get animals. You get plants." The Great Park team plans to bring native fish species, lizards, and turtles to the habitat.

Currently, the park area sees native and foreign plant life. Species ranging from caster seed to Mexican palm trees to mustard and animal grasses are constantly growing. "A lot of species you’d find in the Mediterranean really love it here, thanks to the dry, desert-like climate." says Mitrovich. He says much of the foreign plant life is supported by migrating birds like the red-tailed hawk that carry seeds during their flights across the coast.

Area biologists worry about the prosperity of hawk and raptor life in the general California area, due to its ideal development qualities. "Areas of low elevation and even terrain are the easiest to build on, "says Mitrovich, "and that’s hawk and raptor habitat. Despite southern California being ranked among the best American spaces for biodiversity, he says that much of the native grasslands have been lost to pressures for development. Now, he says, "we’re just concerned with protecting what’s left."

Connecting the Dots

Much of the park"s foreign plant life is supported by migrating birds like the red-tailed hawk.© Orange County Great Park

In addition to the spotlights on nature, the Orange County Great Park promises to inspire community, health and education. Head architect Ken Smith says one of the major anticipated themes of park development is the concept of physical activity and its link to personal wellness. "The people of Orange County love their cars," Smith says, and with the overabundance of food in the country overall, he sees a steep decline in physical activity. "The aim of the Great Park is to get people out of their cars and move," he says.

Adjacent to the Great Park will be 165 acres of sports facilities. Planned allotments include soccer and baseball fields, a skateboard complex, a rock-climbing wall, and a field house. Alongside it will be a Great Lawn, a wide open space for visitors to sunbathe, picnic and play Frisbee.

The park will also include an area for public gardening called Edible Acres, a feature which Smith says will encourage people to take a more critical look at their diets. "I think the one aspect that will set the Great Park apart from the other national parks in the nation is the connections," says Smith. "There is a relationship between the cars we drive, the food we eat, our own physical activity, and our global footprint," he says. "Big parks like this one have a role in showing people those connections."

Lifelong Learning

Irvine is not just a hub for commerce. According to Mayor Beth Krom, it’s a melting pot, too With over 50% of its 210,000 population coming from culturally-diverse backgrounds, including a third of the population from Asian backgrounds, Krom sees the Orange County Great Park as a place where residents can learn from one another, whether during a free ride inside a bright orange air balloon or a walk along the 100-foot tree-lined Cultural Terrace.

Scheduled musical events from local and cultural artists are already planned to run through the summer. Cultural events that celebrate ethnic traditions are also planned for the space. Mia Lehrer, the second head architect for Great Park development, says "Kids will come and be able to recognize a certain plant coming from a certain country. They"ll learn about the Day of the Dead, a holiday in Spain, or hear a language and understand where it’s spoken."

A Lifetime Development

Developers are planning an extensive area for retail and socializing, as well as residential living adjacent to the Great Park. The Great Park Neighborhoods, which will occupy the remaining 60% of the former military base land, is currently being developed to deliver a small college-town feel. Shops, restaurants and even research and educational facilities like the Smithsonian are being considered for the space.

Seventy percent of the park’s layout has been approved, though Smith says "much of the earthwork is still a few years off." Within the next three to five years, Great Park Council members expect to finish at least the sports fields, while the overall project should be complete over the next 25 to 30 years. "This is clearly the project of a lifetime," Smith says. "This Great Park is the biggest, most important project I"ll ever work on."

KIMBERLY TELKER is an editorial intern at E.

CONTACTS: Orange County Great Park; Great Park Neighborhoods