Major Great Park Development Deal Is Delayed
After an eight-hour meeting chock full of threats, praise and uncertainty, Irvine council members decided early Wednesday morning to punt a decision on a controversial new proposal for the Great Park to later this month.
This week's meeting stretched from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 1:20 a.m. Wednesday, as officials, residents and developer FivePoint Communities debated a deal for FivePoint to build most of the Great Park in exchange for being allowed to construct an extra 4,600 homes on land now zoned for commercial.
But nagging questions about legal liability, financial responsibilities and last-minute deal points led one of the plan’s key supporters to prompt a two-week delay.
Staff has just done “a partial analysis” of the deal’s implications, said Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway. “I need to do my due-diligence.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Larry Agran, whose influence over the park was largely diminished after last year’s election, said it would have been “crazy” to approve the deal last night.
“This requires a hell of a lot more discussion,” he said, telling city staff to “get on the ball here, and start protecting our interests.”
The council voted 3-2 to delay it to Nov. 26, with Mayor Steven Choi and Councilwoman Christina Shea opposing.
The proposal would have FivePoint build a massive sports park, an 18-hole golf course, a canyon and a wildlife corridor, among other features – about 65 percent of the overall park.
Their projected cost is $172 million, which FivePoint says it will cover.
FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad said the changes would generate over $1 billion to the city, comparing the project to the Empire State Building, Hoover Dam and the Statue of Liberty.
Irvine has an opportunity to “join the ranks of those important landmarks,” said Haddad.
It comes after more than a decade in which many – including the council majority – say there’s little to show for the $250 million spent so far, and that this public-private partnership is the only real way to get the park built in any reasonable timeframe.
On Tuesday night, hundreds of residents packed the council chambers. At least 200 more - including parents with children – filled an outdoor plaza to watch the proceedings.
But despite the massive amount of public interest in the issue, residents had to wait nearly five hours before they were allowed to voice their opinion.
Much of that time was spent on an hours-long report from staff, filled with technical terms.
“Quit stalling and get to the public hearing,” an audience member shouted about four hours in.
By the time public comments started at 9:48 p.m., most of the families that had gathered outside the meeting were gone.
And Mayor Choi cut down speakers’ time from three minutes to two, a move that offended Agran.
Choi said that, hours into the meeting and with 55 people wanting to speak, he wanted to move it forward as quickly as possible.
“Basically it’s opposed or not opposed,” Choi said of the public’s input.
Many residents supported the project, saying its sports park – including 24 soccer fields – will serve as a major benefit for children in Irvine and across the county.
“There will never be too many active sports parks in Orange County,” said Orange County Taxpayers Association CEO Carolyn Cavecche, saying the park was promised to all of the county.
It also gained the support from local youth sports leagues like the AYSO soccer organization.
Others urged the council to delay or oppose the plan, saying there are too many holes in the proposal.
“There’s no need to rush this. We could take another week or two,” said a resident who identified himself as Brian.
“Don’t vote yes for an asterisk,” he added, referring to unresolved questions in staff’s presentation.
Others questioned what the alternatives are if the city doesn’t approve the FivePoint agreement, something staff hadn’t addressed.
The council majority suggested that there really aren’t any other viable options, since the city already “wasted away” $250 million of the $265 million it had for the park and has shown it can’t be trusted to manage the project.
“I think if anyone can do it, it’s you. It’s not us,” Councilwoman Shea told FivePoint executives.
The council minority, meanwhile, took offense to the “denigration” of what’s already been built – including a hot air balloon, a carousel and soccer fields.
“We have made a tremendous amount of progress,” said Agran.
Agran and Councilwoman Beth Krom want to stick with their original plan, with Agran suggesting that FivePoint simply give the city the $172 million and form a joint committee to build out the park.
“Let’s do it together,” said Agran.
Choi, meanwhile, warned that the city could lose one of its largest employers, Broadcom Corporation, if the deal isn’t approved by the end of the month.
The $15-billion tech firm wants to double its local workforce to 8,000 people, Choi said, and will move to Tustin if FivePoint’s new entitlements aren’t approved.
He then accused Agran of “using scare tactics” in pointing to a proposed high school site near a closed toxic waste dump and a county jail.
“Don’t take this overall development hostage for a school site,” said Choi.
Many of the proposed deal points were only given to council members on Tuesday, staff said, leaving many questions unanswered.
Among them are the city’s legal liabilities for park construction being designed and overseen by FivePoint.
While a FivePoint subsidiary – Heritage Fields El Toro, LLC – would be in charge of design and construction of the project, it wouldn’t be liable for the quality of the improvements, staff said.
That prompted a laugh from an audience member.
“This is a lawsuit magnet,” said Agran.
Other deal points were negotiated right up until the start of the meeting.
FivePoint agreed “just an hour ago” that its contracts would provide a one-year deficit bond, said Assistant City Attorney Jeff Melching.
Additionally, staff is still investigating whether the $40 million in Mello-Roos fees FivePoint plans to use can be funded with tax-exempt bonds.
The city could also get a bill of unspecified amount from the county for possessory interest tax, staff said.
And the city would have to pay for removing hazardous material and asphalt, costs that staff didn’t have a figure for.
Another point of dispute is the environmental impact analysis for the 4,600 new homes.
The council majority says the analysis found traffic impacts would be about the same as the planned commercial development that the homes would replace.
But others disagreed.
One resident said he found it “hard to believe” that housing could be increased without a jump in traffic congestion.
“This isn’t rubber-stamp stuff. This is serious business” regarding impacts of traffic and toxic waste dumps, Agran said.
Staff said that over 90 percent of the proposal’s problems have been worked out, which Choi said isn't a good enough reason to delay the vote.
But Lalloway wasn’t comfortable with just 90 percent.
“It’s not Irvine’s high standard of planning. I need 100 percent,” he said.
You can reach Nick Gerda at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.