The confusing controversy over the Veteran’s Cemetery at the Strawberry Fields site is resolved for now and on a 3-2 vote all 125 acres will be released for use as a memorial. But new questions remain unanswered.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to public comments as the meeting was held mid-afternoon perhaps to prevent Irvine taxpayers from having a say. I got there just after public comments. So what I would have said last night are in my comments are below. Since here, I’m not constrained by a 3 minute time limit, I have my original draft and not the edited cut to say what I wanted to in 3 minutes:
“This afternoon we gather again for yet another city council firedrill. It’s deja vu all over again. Didn’t we just do this on June 6th? Who is actually running this city? Is it the mayor and city council? Is city staff? Or is it really FivePoint or the Irvine Company or Starpointe Ventures who call the shots? The one important constituency missing from this equation are Irvine’s taxpayers and this meeting is held at a time that makes it difficult for those who pay taxes in this city to attend and speak their minds.
Back in April, studies were done, shovels were ready and approvals were obtained to break ground on the Vet Cemetery at the ARDA site. In flies the City Council, the developer who funded campaigns of two members of the council, and the leadership of a Veterans Group that oddly doesn’t seem to represent all Veterans (because a number of Veterans did speak out against the landswap), and a massive last minute offensive to fast track an acre for acre landswap. No one is against a cemetery for the Vets, expect Council member Shea and FivePoint when it was initially announced in 2014, but now the devil is in the details which are not all available or not consistently compared.
When the vote was initially taken in April of 2014, the studies and financial impact HAD NOT BEEN done.
As Einstein once said – the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results – and yet, council did the very same thing in June 6th. With a 10-page dissertation that included no timelines, no completed contracts, no promise of funds, other than $10m from the developer (that’s it?) towards an undefined “phase one” of the project, the Council approved a land swap. An acre for acre, not dollar for dollar, with full entitlements. Using as a defense for the deal, an assessment of nearby properties for in the Spectrum to suggest it was a financially good deal but using an old assessment of the ARDA site and the cost of preparing the site to show it was somehow less valuable. An apples for oranges comparison and, frankly, insanity.
The Vets have said they don’t mind if Mr. Haddad makes a few dollars off the swap. But its not a few dollars he’ll make. It’s tens of millions if not hundreds of millions. Money that could have gone to pay for the full development of the cemetery and ongoing maintenance. Vets were going to get a cemetery regardless. CalVet has the new site at the bottom of the list. If there’s a groundbreaking in a few months, it’s because FivePoint still owns the land and they can do what they want with it but you’re still years away from starting construction. You lost time.
On Melissa Fox’s blog, she proclaims that she saved the public $80 million dollars with her vote for the land swap. This is only true if a cemetery isn’t built. There’s much discussion about enforceable contracts. But there is no real contract for what $10 million at the new site pays for or what “Phase One” is.
The OWEN report provided concrete financial analysis that showed that the cost at the ARDA site was $78m with a $30m price tag for decontamination. The $30 million was secured by State Rep. Sharon Quirk-Silva specifically tied to ARDA. Note that the OWEN report also states, “The review of relevant agreements indicate that Heritage Fields is currently responsible for demolition of runways on the proposed Veterans Cemetery site. That obligation is also found in the 2010 Amended and Restated Master Implementation Agreement between the City and Heritage Fields. Further, absent Heritage Fields’ consent, the obligation to demolish those runways will terminate upon the City’s transfer of the ARDA site to another entity or the State.” On page 18 of the report, “In discussions with the City of Irvine staff, when the site is transferred to the State, the State will be responsible for the environmental remediation if contaminated soil is discovered during excavation.” Not Irvine TAXPAYERS, but the state. And what the state doesn’t cover, Heritage Fields must.
So exactly what money was “saved” for Irvine taxpayers if the State and the Developer were on the hook for the difference between the development of the ARDA site and the Strawberry fields? In part, my guess is that this swap was to relieve the state of the obligation to pay this bill and to relieve Five Point too.
Let’s talk about land appraisals for a moment. The ARDA’s 125 acres in the middle of Irvine was valued in 2014 for $9.4m, with zoning for agriculture and trails. The Adjacent Portola High School, which is 34 acres, was valued at $143m in 2015 and we’ve been told repeatedly that there were no toxics on the site but apparently ARDA is a Superfund site (someone at the city and the school district need to learn to sing from the same choirbook). In the Voice of OC article Tuesday, a new assessment valued the 125 acres ARDA site at just $4 million making it the only property to lose significant value during these boom real estate times.
How does this plot of land somehow reduce in value when the rest of Irvine has skyrocketed? The only way that the city of Irvine can be made whole for this land is to put a For Sale sign on it. But it’s too late because it’s Emile Haddad’s now with full entitlements to reap massive profits.
The assessment should perhaps have been done by considering what the land would be worth with the unneeded buildings gone, soil cleaned and the entitlements Five Points transfers to the site (with 9,000 daily car trips attached), and the hotels, homes and office buildings the developer can add when they have finally maximized their investment in the property. It’s truly a shame the public isn’t being made aware of this information ahead of the meeting so that we can have some input to this process – but the taxpayer’s voice here means less to this council majority than that of the developers. This swap was a gift of public funds to a billionaire developer who buys political seats to grant him profitable favors and the council majority is playing numbers games to make themselves look good. And sorry it’s not working.
Finally, let’s discuss the sham of a traffic analysis and environmental impact report that was provided by the community development director. A supplemental EIR was done in 2013. In order to justify bringing another 9,000 cars into the center of Irvine, our city staff based their approval recommendation on this four year old incomplete study. No additional CEDQA was done. No additional environmental analysis for water, sewage, or utilities was done. It was a simple rubber stamp in order to please the development czars who fund campaign coffers. How is it possible with all of the zoning amendments and growth in Irvine that a 2013 analysis is even close to being relevant today?
The city references a public outreach program to property owners within 500 feet of the project site. There is only one property owner within 500 feet and it’s Mr. Haddad, so I guess that only one notice.
For a city that prides itself on painstaking planning and review, this entire process is a sham for which the council majority ought to be ashamed of themselves.”