One of the great fallacies of our modern world is the idea that development decisions should largely be made through politics and public input. That way all the “stakeholders” get their say and the end result – following city council motions, public votes and bureaucratic oversight – expresses the will of the people.
I’m always looking for ways to illustrate why this is not so – i.e., why letting developers just develop stuff (provided they follow basic rules) is the most harmonious approach. For example, all the voter-approved no-growth restrictions in San Francisco have ensured that only trust-funders can afford to live in that particular dog-eat-dog housing market.
But why go to San Francisco, when Orange County’s 22-year battle over the redevelopment of the decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station offers an example? In 1994, voters approved an international airport plan. The ensuing eight years were filled with strife, culminating in a 2002 vote that rezoned the location for an Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve.
The Great Park was born, but 14 years later, it still hasn’t grown out of its infancy. This political process hasn’t created the world-class park we were promised. For years, barely anything happened there, although park officials ran a well-oiled public-relations machine. In recent years, the park has gained modest attractions.
But this was a project that was supposed to rival Balboa Park or Central Park. At the going rate, it might be a decent regional park, of the type you visit for a kids’ soccer game. An 8-year-old Register article reminded me of the grand visions pitched to the voting public of “a majestic, 1,300-acre central park, where military runways, hangars and chain-link fences are transformed into expanses of sports fields, eye-catching natural landmarks and cultural gathering points.”
Orange County is the nation’s premier spot for master-planned communities. A developer could have built something magnificent in the ensuing nine years. By now, the acreage would be a privately financed showplace. Instead, the main thing Californians have to show is an endless local political battle that has even dragged in state officials.
Last year, the Orange County Grand Jury released “Irvine Great Park: A Legacy of Hubris.” It blasted a “lack of progress” over a decade and raised questions about the project’s transparency. “Unfortunately, what the public got bears little semblance to the pipedreams they were sold,” the grand jury explained.
Irvine annexed the park back when Democrat Larry Agran controlled the City Council. Republicans had long accused him and his allies of mismanaging the park. When they finally took control of the City Council in 2013, they conducted an audit of the project. The 157-page report painted a damning picture.
“It has been said many times in defense of the decisions made from 2006 to 2009, that it was the recession or the state’s dissolving redevelopment that killed the Great Park. This is false,” according to the city’s audit. “The Master Plan was killed not by the recession or the loss of the redevelopment funding, it was killed by its own hubris.”
After complaints from legislators unhappy with the audit, state Auditor Elaine Howle did her own review of Irvine’s audit. The findings, released Aug. 9, criticized the city: “This report concludes that poor governance of the park review, which ultimately cost the city about $1.7 million, compromised the review’s credibility.” The back and forth continues.
In a 2001 Register column, I dubbed it the Great Pork, referring to “the gobs of taxpayer funds that would be needed to support even the least ambitious uses of the acreage.” If voters had listened to the newspaper, the land would have been sold to the highest bidder and county residents would now be enjoying a beautiful master-planned community filled with new houses, offices, shopping and, yes, parkland.
It’s too late now, but there’s a bigger point: Democracy is fine for picking political leaders (the current presidential race excluded, perhaps), but it’s no way to develop property.