Learning from Orange County’s Great Park

My journey through the new paradigm of San Jose’s Parks and Trails received another boost in the last month. Part of it came from a vacation to Montana, which always opens my eyes a bit and makes me reflect. But the biggest boost I received was from a tour of Los Angeles and Orange County parks.

Last summer I attended the Greater & Greener Conference in New York City, and I learned plenty. But what made the LA and Orange County tour so inspiring is that these parks and trails are located in California cities and counties. These areas have faced budget cuts and personnel reductions on a scale similar to or greater than San Jose.

It has been disconcerting to launch the San Jose parks Foundation while simultaneously watching the city’s department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services reduced by 39 percent over a three-year period. So, when I was especially impressed to see the proactive, aggressive decision by the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department to actually build more parks—and to build those parks in the neighborhoods where they are needed most.

In a previous column I discussed the Los Angeles “50 Parks Initiative,” but I didn’t really go into the amazing transformation taking place in Orange County, where the former El Toro Marine Air Base is being re-invented as a multiple-use Great Park. Former San Jose city staffer, Mike Ellzey, who headed up the San Jose Arena project a few decades ago, hosted our group. He is currently the CEO of the Orange County Great Park Corporation.

The base covers 1,300 acres. For comparison, San Jose has 2,884 acres of parkland. Currently, the park has a few attractions, including some aviation museum elements, a few meeting buildings and a hot air balloon that takes viewers up 400 feet for a view of the whole park. There are organic gardens and orchards, a farmers market, as well as a distribution network that delivers the produce to local shelters and kitchens.

There is room for cycling trails and the preserved runways are being used for automobile events and shows. There is also room to spare for plenty of parking. Upcoming major events in the park include the return of Cirque du Soleil and the upcoming Solar Decathlon, a competition among major colleges to produce energy efficient houses.

The other feature of the Great Park that mirrors Los Angeles is that it includes several partners. More can be done by parks and recreation departments, but the key is to have a broad coalition of community supporters and partners and at all levels, from neighborhood associations and foundations to other governmental entities. I also noted that there was a significant presence of veterans groups, a conscious effort to acknowledge and preserve the history of the park as a military base.

James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected]  or 408.893.PARK.


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