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O.C. Great Park: if you build a little of it, they will come

Landscape architect Ken Smith has precisely the right idea for how to build Orange County Great Park, the ambitious urban park planned for the site of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station south of Los Angeles in Orange County, Calif. The park was supposed to be financed by real estate development, but homebuilder Lennar Corp., which took control of the base in 2005, has put construction on hold because of California’s massive housing bust.

Smith’s idea: Build just a little of it, attract some crowds, garner interest and support, and then go from there. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times by Paloma Esquivel, the bicoastal Smith was inspired in part by New York City, where builders of a park along the Hudson River built a constituency for the project by putting in temporary trails for jogging, biking, and roller-skating.

Not that Smith has much choice—no one’s going to sit down tomorrow and write him a check for the $1.3 billion that he thinks will eventually be needed to build “the first great metropolitan park of the 21st Century.”

Pragmatically, Smith started out by building a Preview Park on a tiny piece of the 4,700-acre former military base. Its main attraction is an iconic crowd-pleaser, a big, orange, helium balloon that gives park visitors panoramic views from an altitude of 400 feet. More than 100,000 people have flown in the balloon—not a bad way to engender optimism for the bigger project.

In August, according to an article in the Orange County Register, the city of Irvine, Calif., and Lennar agreed that Lennar would commit $58 million over the next five years for infrastructure and maintenance in the park, and would give the city 135 more acres of park land. The article quotes Emile Haddad, Lennar’s former chief investment officer, whose new company, Five Point Properties, recently took over management of the Great Park. “We’re trying to set this thing to be successful based on the world we live in today,” Haddad said. (Meaning: A post-bust world.)

Then, earlier this month, the park’s board of directors approved $65 million worth of construction on 200 acres, including sports fields and gardens but not a planned lake.

Orange County Great Park isn’t exactly great yet. It isn’t even exactly a park. But you do what you can.

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