February 14, 2006 - From the February, 2006 issue

O.C. Chooses Diverse Team to Design Great Park: Olmsted Alive!

Following the decommissioning of the El Toro Marine Air Station adjacent to Irvine, Orange County voters rejected proposals to turn the site into an international airport and instead called for the creation of a "great park." Last month, that choice moved a step closer to reality with the selection of a team led by New York's Ken Smith to design and oversee construction of perhaps the largest landscaping project in American history. In this exclusive TPR interview, Mr. Smith describes his vision for transforming 1,300 acres into a central park for the metropolis of Orange County.


Ken Smith

Your design won the Great Park competition, and you now lead a team that now has a challenge of building out a 1300-acre park in Orange County. How have you and your team defined this challenge?

The challenge is how to transform a site that is largely flat and featureless, with a repressed ecology that needs to be brought back, and make it a public space that has real social places and opportunities for people to come together.

What about your design and your ensemble team appealed to the decision-makers who judged the Great Park competition?

I think the team makeup was important. I know that the project has been spoken of in terms of selecting a master designer, but the team that I put together was always conceived of as a collaborative group that functioned as a master designer, and I think it is well equipped to address sites like this. Beyond that, we wanted to approach the site in terms of sustainability and history in a way that would reflect the history and culture of the place, and we wanted to deal with it in terms of community and create a social space where people come together.

Share more about the team members you've just spoken of and how you chose them from among the others that could have been on your team?

I chose people who I thought had experience and were ready and able to take on a project of this scale. I was looking for people that I had worked with before so that we could be a team that knew we could work well together and work collaboratively. I picked specialists who could address the various aspects that I knew the project would entail.

Steven Handel is a restoration ecologist; he has a great grasp of how you bring life back to a site that's really disturbed. Mary Miss is an artist. I'm working with Mary on a park in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and she brings an artist's sensibility into the question of how to make a space and to connect social spaces with environmental spaces. Enrique Norten is an architect from Mexico City, but he has an office in New York, and he is a great contemporary architect who is doing some amazing buildings. I thought because he's from Mexico City, he has a certain understanding of a kind of climate that is similar to that of Southern California. In some ways the social characteristics are similar also because of the Latin influence in culture. Then there's Mia Lehrer, who is a landscape architect in Los Angeles who has built a strong practice and has done a lot of public work. She has real experience with Southern California in terms of the landscape and the culture, and because of her experience with large public works projects I thought she was really a key person to have on the project.

In more supporting but still important roles are people like Buro Happold who is a large environmental sustainability engineering firm. In Denver, we're working with hydrology engineer Steve Blake and his firm Artifexed. We're also working with Pat Fuscoe, an engineering firm based in Irvine.

In this issue of TPR, Corbin Smith, the owner's rep and project manager for the new Getty Villa, suggests that his job was to keep all of the players on the same page with the same focus. You have a geographically dispersed and fascinating team. How do you keep them all focused on this project in Orange County?

I'm the team lead, so I'm a big part of the glue that holds the team together. I'm going to open an office in Orange County – quite likely, it will be on the old marine base in one of the old buildings that we won't be tearing down right away. I'll be building a staff there, and I will be spending about half of my time in California working on this project.

The idea is that everyone on our team will be embedded in that office, and representatives of the various firms will work in that office to provide some of that cohesiveness and coordination that we need. For project management I am teaming up with Gafcon who are program managers based in Southern California and have experience working with designers on large public works projects such as the Port of L.A. San Pedro Waterfront. Gafcon will be the other part of the glue holding things together. They will focus on design administration, scheduling and document management.

Being a New Yorker selected to lead this team, what do your colleagues in the New York area think about going to work with "sprawlville" – Orange County, California?

I think many New Yorkers don't know where Orange County is. I have to say, even I was a little vague on it when we started the project. Most New Yorkers will say, "Oh, in Los Angeles?" and I say, "No, no, Orange County." But what I've been learning is that Orange County is actually a growing and changing place. While Irvine is a fairly young community, parts of it are starting to be built out, and there's quite a density of development and community there. Orange County is becoming more diverse in its population, so it's really beginning to mature and change, and I think the ambition to create a great park reflects that change.

To use a term often associated with New York, isn't there a bit of "chutzpah" in calling this project a "great" park? What is great about this park? Is it the equivalent of Central Park?

Sure, it is, but I think there's a little chutzpah in calling Central Park Central Park. When they built Central Park, it wasn't in the center of town. It was way up in the wasteland on the edge, but Central Park had a great ambition embedded in it that justified the name. I think in Orange County there is a great ambition and it's expressed in its name, and I think it is that ambition that makes it a very challenging park. We've said many times that there's a big difference between a good park and a great park, and good is our enemy. If what we do is merely good, then we've failed.

What will be the elements for our readers to use as benchmarks to judge whether the park is merely good or reaches the status of great?

I think that one judge is that it has to be greater than the sum of its parts. One of the things you see in a lot of contemporary work, and especially public work where you deal with multiple constituencies, is that oftentimes public work in parks ends up being carved up into a lot of parts. In our approach to the park, we've talked about the park as three principle parts in one.

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The ecology part, which is the underlay of putting the natural systems back and creating a real set of natural processes and spaces, wildlife corridors and plant communities that blends this park into a larger environmental setting as a critical link between the coastal areas and the foothills of the mountains. Then the canyon is this great big spatial gesture to create a wholly new environment that we make on this place and can become a focus of activity, a focus of the park, a big enough gesture to act as sort of a framework for the park's spaces.

Then, finally there's the flat areas: the fields, the sports parks, the groves and orchards, and the remnants of the runways. I think our challenge is to keep those three principal parts working cohesively together as we respond to all the many constituencies, interests, and visions that we're going to have to deal with.

The proposed park will sit on about half of the reclaimed El Toro Marine base, and the other property will be developed by Lennar Corp. for housing. What will be the interface in the planning for the park and the planning for Lennar's development?

Preliminary briefings have given us a cursory notion of the surrounding development, and in the coming weeks we'll get more detailed outlines of what they're thinking about and how the design for these surrounding neighborhoods is shaping up. I do know that there are a couple of density centers in their development, and what I find interesting is that they seem interested in not just the typical uniform low-density development which I think characterizes a lot of the region's development. They're looking at development that is more urban in character with more focused densities. There is an intention of making these neighborhoods pedestrian oriented with strong linkages to the new park.

They are looking at having more concentrated density in two areas in particular. One is a transit-oriented development that lies near the Amtrak and Metrolink line that connects San Diego to Orange County and up to Union Station. I think this sort of transit hub is really interesting because it starts to figure in a kind of relationship between park and development that would be pedestrian-oriented. There could be places where people could actually walk from their house to shopping to the park. In terms of environment and sustainability that is a very strong notion for Southern California.

The other area they're looking at is a lifelong learning area, and it also would have a little higher density and a commercial component where people could walk between housing and shopping. And that area would have a mix of educational facilities. There may be a college campus there or some other educational facilities. Then, we're looking at how the park might serve as a kind of link between these density areas so the park could function for pedestrians or with some shuttle systems. We'd really like to get people out of their cars. If they come to the park by car then they would park once and spend a whole day without going back to their car. Or if people are living in these adjacent developments, they'd be structured with strong pedestrian connections between the neighborhoods and the park.

Elaborate on the budget, timeline, and plans to manage the park.

Right now, there's $200 million for the first phase of park development and then another $200 million for underlying infrastructure, which will support both the park and adjoining developments, in my understanding.

The first part of our project will be a master planning phase. That will take about nine months to update our competition plans so that they're more developed and detailed and can lead to a program with the first phase, second phase, and future phases. I think over time there will be additional phases of development. I don't know exactly what those will be. There may be another couple hundred million dollars that will add more area or features to the park. Other facilities, particularly the cultural components, the museums and botanical gardens at the canyon rim will likely involve private initiatives and fundraising.

And once the park is built, what sort of entity will manage it?

I imagine there will be a Great Park department in charge of maintenance and programming. There may also be other support groups or conservancies similar to the Central Park Conservancy, which will augment the department's efforts.

I suspect that there will be a core park management that will be part of the Great Park itself, but, like the models of Central Park or Bryant Park, there may well be a conservancy or another group that is involved in raising funds for ongoing maintenance and programming.

Will O.C.'s leaders and park administrators draw any programmatic cues from Olmsted, such as the detailed supervision that he mandated for Central Park?

It'll be a little different. You know, Olmsted didn't want there to be any night lighting in Central Park or even sports, which of course in contemporary thinking we wouldn't exclude. In the 19th century social and environmental concerns were about overcrowding and assimilation of immigrants and pollution and health. In Olmsted's time, the idea of going to unspoiled nature was based on notions of fresh air, health and sanitation. It was a time of communicable epidemics and diseases such as tuberculosis. Exposure to open space and fresh air and natural scenery were part of nineteenth century's social response to these health problems.

Today, I think we would recognize that exercise is a much stronger part of health, so active recreation areas today seem to fit into that core notion Olmsted had about health, but it's a different way of expressing it. We might well have things like an agriculture center in the park that deals with issues of food production, health and eating because that also has to do with contemporary ideas of health. Our culture is much more sedentary than it was a hundred years ago so physical activity is as important as mental activity and refreshment in a park.

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