Fred A. Bernstein

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The Central Park of Southern California

Rare public space for Orange County, California

Published in The New York Times, February 4, 2007

KEN SMITH, a landscape architect based in Manhattan, is known for projects like the tiny terrace he designed on Sutton Place, where he was limited to "planting" plastic flowers in pipes mounted on a brick wall.

But every two weeks or so, he flies to Southern California, where he is designing a park that is the size of about a million Manhattan terraces - 1,347 acres. Called the Orange County Great Park, it will cover a large swath of what had been El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Ground - much of it buried under runways - was broken last summer, and construction is scheduled in phases over at least 15 years.

Mr. Smith, 53, won an international competition with a design that includes a two-mile-long, 60-foot-deep artificial canyon, with hiking trails and a lake large enough for boating. It will provide aesthetic relief from the flat, open expanses of the former air base. It is a feature that Mr. Smith traces, in part, to his work in Manhattan, where high density requires him to think vertically as well as horizontally.

His plan retains portions of the old base, including a hangar that will become an aviation museum and a runway that will be reborn as a two-mile-long pedestrian corridor. But the success of Mr. Smith's venture will hinge not only on design, but also on his ability to collaborate with a Miami-based real estate developer, the Lennar Corporation.

Lennar, which has built houses in 20 states, is planning a large residential and commercial development on 1,500 acres surrounding the park. Emile Haddad, the chief investment officer of Lennar, described Mr. Smith's role as "creating a huge amenity for our development."

Rather than resenting the association between his park and the development, Mr. Smith welcomes it. "The two projects are inseparable," he said. His team meets regularly with Lennar representatives to discover ways to make the park more valuable to the development, and vice versa.

It is impossible to avoid drawing comparisons to Manhattan, where the presence of Central Park (at 843 acres) has made the real estate around its edges extraordinarily desirable. The residents of buildings on the park's perimeter, in turn, support the park, with increased property taxes and donations to the Central Park Conservancy.

It is a symbiosis that Mr. Smith hopes to emulate in California, where residents of the surrounding developments - lured there in part by the park - will pay a property tax add-on allowed by California law to provide for new public facilities. The more valuable the land, the greater the tax revenue and, therefore, the greater the budget for park construction, which is likely to cost more than $1 billion.

The story of the great park began in the early 1990s, when the Navy said it would close El Toro. Orange County officials announced plans to build an international airport, using the existing runways. But residents who feared the noise and congestion began what Larry Agran, the former mayor of Irvine who now serves as chairman of the nine-member board of the Orange County Great Park Corporation, called "a 10-year nonviolent civil war."

The war included not only litigation, but also four separate voter referendums. The last one defeated the airport plan and called on Irvine to create the park.

According to Mr. Agran, that set off an immediate real estate boom. "The proposed airport had depressed residential property values all around the site," he said. "When the airport was defeated, there was a collective sigh of relief. Housing prices began to shoot up, particularly as people began to understand that there will be a great metropolitan park there."

For its part, the Navy divided the land into four parcels, which it auctioned to the highest bidder. As it turned out, the highest bidder for all four was Heritage Fields, a joint venture led by Lennar, which paid the Navy $650 million. Under a plan approved by the Irvine City Council, Lennar then transferred about a quarter of the land to the park corporation. (It was also required to provide some infrastructure for the park - worth about $200 million - and another $200 million in cash for park construction.)

Under the current plan, Lennar can build 3,600 housing units, which, Mr. Haddad said, would probably mean a mix of single-family homes and three- and four-story buildings. But Mr. Haddad, Mr. Smith and Mr. Agran, among others, would like to see the density increased.

Last year, Lennar asked the city to amend the master plan to allow it to build 9,500 units; in exchange, it would provide 400 additional acres of parkland.

The tallest buildings, possibly as high as 18 stories, would be in two locations, one near an existing shopping mall, called the Irvine Spectrum Center, and the other in a "lifelong learning district" anchored by several educational institutions. Mr. Haddad said that prices for the houses and condominiums would probably range from about $500,000 to $3 million or $4 million.

The proposal for the larger development is very likely to pass, Mr. Agran said. But the approval process could take more than a year.

In the meantime, demolition of many El Toro buildings has begun; Habitat for Humanity is working to salvage materials that can be used to build homes for the poor, Mr. Smith said. And giant machines are tearing up the runways, leaving fragments - Mr. Smith calls it "Toro stone" - that will be used in park construction.

Mr. Smith is moving forward on two fronts. "The first," he said, "is to build aspects of the park that stretch across the whole site, so visitors early on get a sense of its vastness." This summer, residents will be able to ascend 500 feet in a hot air balloon to get a bird's-eye view of the site.

The second front, he said, is to identify areas that are adjacent to early developments, and to finish them as soon as possible.

According to Mr. Haddad, "Our biggest focus right now, selfishly, is making sure that parts of the park are a reality by 2009," when Lennar expects its first homes to be ready.

In designing the areas adjacent to Lennar housing, Mr. Smith is again inspired by Central Park, which, he said, "is loaded up with features on its perimeter." Mr. Smith said he was "working very closely with Lennar, on things like understanding their street system, so that we can meet the neighborhood recreation needs along the edges of the park."

Mr. Haddad said, "One of the advantages we have, that New York didn't have with Central Park, is that we are master planning - we are able to look at things in their totality."

Like Central Park, the Orange County Great Park will be reachable by mass transit: a monorail or other light-rail system is expected to run along the edges of the park, connecting Lennar's developments and Mr. Smith's park facilities with a newly enlarged Amtrak station.

The plan is quite urban for the largely suburban Orange County. Now, with more than three million people, it is the fifth most populous county in the United States.

These days, Mr. Smith said, everyone he meets in Orange County talks about the loss of open space. The great park, he said, is "a chance to give people back a chunk of what they've lost."

And if that requires significant development around the park, Mr. Smith, a Manhattanite, isn't complaining.

"Having a little more density around the park," he said, "means there will be more people to use it."