- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

IRVINE, Calif. (AP) — It was an opportunity that made developers drool: Nearly 5,000 acres of untouched land up for grabs in the middle of one of the most densely populated and built-out counties in the nation.

But seven years after Marine Corps Air Station El Toro closed, the flat, nondescript land is instead on the verge of becoming the Orange County Great Park, one of the largest, most amenity-filled open spaces ever planned for the United States.

“It’s incredible. In this county, with the traffic and the population, having a large green area like that is enormously attractive,” said longtime resident Dan Carlsson. “There’ll be nothing like it anywhere in the world.”

An architectural design firm was to be selected yesterday, just weeks after members of the park’s nonprofit board and the Irvine City Council took a $50,000 tour to renowned urban parks in Barcelona, Paris and New York.

As conceived, the Great Park would be larger than New York City’s Central Park and about equal in size to San Diego’s Balboa Park and the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Tentative plans include a museum district, an open-air theater, a sports park and a wildlife corridor that will unravel a belt of green from the Cleveland National Forest to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The park’s first phase could be completed in two years, officials said.

The green space is a victory for residents who fought for more than a decade to keep the base from becoming another airport in a region crowded with jet traffic.

“Let’s face it, this land is very expensive down here, and they didn’t want an international airport,” said Marsha Burgess, Great Park Corp. spokeswoman.

In 2002, 12 years after the fight over El Toro began, voters approved a ballot measure clearing the way for open space. Three years later, Miami-based developer Lennar Corp. bought the 4,700-acre base from the Navy.

More than $1 billion will have changed hands before the process is complete, including nearly $650 million paid to the U.S. Navy and $400 million to the city in a complex arrangement in which 1,300 acres were set aside as parkland.

Experts say Great Park’s planners face a tremendous challenge: making such a large swath of land appealing to a diverse county of 3 million people.

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