On Tuesday, July 26, the Great Park Board voted 4-1 to approve a new framework plan for major enhancements, paving the way for new development across 300 acres of open space. 

The first phase of Irvine’s new Great Park framework includes sprawling botanical gardens, a veterans memorial park, a permanent amphitheater space, and long-awaited food and beverage options. 

With no official price set on the project, a staff report indicated that the city of Irvine has approximately $600 million in funding available to begin construction. The Great Park Framework Phase 1 plan is expected to encompass approximately 300 of 750 acres, beginning with the 125-acre ARDA site.

In terms of estimated costs, a staff report indicated that the initial cost of the botanical gardens will be approximately $36 million.  

“The fact that we have nearly $600 million in cash on hand for use toward seeding the development of the first phase of the Great Park, there’s conceptually enough funding to move ahead with the elements that are being suggested — the framework plan,” Irvine City Manager Oliver Chi said during the meeting. 

The new framework concepts will divide the Great park into four different sectors, which are classified as Character Zones — Botanic Gardens, Heart of the Park, Sports Park and the Cultural Terrace. 

Within the 31-acre botanic gardens, there are plans for several different types of garden spaces and outdoor classrooms, along with wedding and event spaces. There are also plans for a seven-acre public library terrace and a five-acre memorial garden.

Moving inward, the Heart of the Park is expected to host a central lake, a Great Meadow, an amphitheater, and agricultural fields with farm-to-table functionality.

The Cultural Terrance will include museum space for the Flying Leathernecks Air & Space Museum concept, Pretend City Children’s Museum and the California Fire Museum.  

Chi said that the plans put forth in the newly published framework came from a variety of public input, along with gathering inspiration from well-known metropolitan destinations like New York City’s Central Park and Balboa Park in San Diego. 

“We conducted a survey in 2021. We had over 2,900 people respond to that survey – about 55% of respondents were neighbors that lived within the general area of the Great Park,” he said. “What Irvine residents want is something that’s world-class and iconic – put Irvine on the map as a destination between L.A. and San Diego.” 

In an 86-page Powerpoint, Chi outlined the Phase 1 plan, which will begin with the site clearance and clean-up of the ARDA site, prior to beginning construction on a 31-acre botanic garden with an adjoining five-acre veteran’s memorial garden, which will be placed on a 24-acre site. 

In terms of a timeline, the city of Irvine is expected to sign agreements with Live Nation – for an amphitheater – and USA Water Polo for a public swimming facility, in September. In the fall, the city would move on to business plan development, while selecting landscape architecture and civil engineering for the project. Staff expects the ability to present an Environmental Impact Report for the project to the City Council next summer. 

While the majority of the Great Park Board was enthusiastic about the framework, Director Larry Agran, who voted against the item, said he did not want the Great Park Board “plunging ahead” with these new plans. 

Agran, who has been the county’s biggest proponent for a veteran’s park and cemetery at the 125-acre ARDA site, was critical of the project moving forward during the meeting. 

“What do you want from us tonight?” Agran asked. “You want us to approve the botanical garden idea tonight and have you push ahead — I couldn’t vote for that.”

Chi explained that staff was mainly attempting to see if this conceptual framework was moving in the right direction.  

“The challenge, though, is that it’s hard to think about the park if you’re not looking at the entirety of it. If you’re looking at just one section of it, inevitably what you do in one area impacts the rest of the park,” Chi said. “What we’ve tried to do is really honor the direction of the council to plan for a botanic garden and a memorial on the ARDA site. We’ve come up with some concepts for what that can look like, it’s really a feasibility study.”  

In his comments, Agran said the ideas presented in the framework were “way too much” of an undertaking, and voiced frustration at the size comparison between the veteran’s memorial park and the botanical garden. 

“That is way too much to be biting off tonight. I’m interested in moving forward with the demolition, site clearance and clean-up at the ARDA site – whether it’s botanical garden, or a veterans memorial park, we’ve got to clean up that eyesore,” he said. “I also have very strong feelings about the idea of the botanical garden preempting everything there. It basically erases the memory of the veterans, veteran’s families — the service and sacrifice over the years.”

Now, with approval, the item will be subjected to review by the Great Park Residents Task Force. The task force was established by the park’s Board of Directors in May.

The Great Park Task Force will become a 15-member panel composed of residents from Great Park Neighborhoods. In terms of appointments, each council member will be responsible for his or her process if an application is needed.

The Great Park Resident Task Force is planning to host meetings in August and September in an effort to review the new framework and schedule for implementation.

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