Auction Seals Future of El Toro Base

Saturday, February 19, 2005
A park, not an airport
Auction seals future of El Toro base, but Navy can make amends.
The Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram

The last, small chance that the former El Toro Marine Station could become a commercial airport and relieve pressure on Long Beach and other regional airports vanished this week in an auction. It went for the bargain price of $649.5 million, plus $400 million in fees. Instead of airplanes, the vast site will be developed over the next 10 years into parkland, a university campus, golf courses, research and development facilities, retail, senior housing, museum space and 3,400 homes. It will be known as the Great Park.

The first to be broken up and disposed of at El Toro will be world-class runways that would make any pilot salivate. The first development will be a sports park and wildlife corridor in 2006, followed by Meadows Park and sale of the first homes in 2007. Grand Opening of the Great Park will be in 2008, and the last of the housing will be finished in 2015.

L.A. politicians are treating the sale as a scandal. They had their eye on those runways as a relief valve for the pressures building up at L.A. International Airport. In Long Beach, opponents of local airport expansion also hoped that El Toro as an international airport would reduce the likelihood that expansion would get out of hand.

But Orange County voters felt otherwise, and the federal government sided with them. The auction, first of its kind, attracted three bidders and brought in substantially more than the minimum bid of $525 million.

  • From the government’s point of view, this was a big success. All of the previous base-closure land sales combined didn’t bring in this much money.
  • From the market’s point of view, at $1.2 million per developable acre bid by Lennar Corp., it was little more than half what some experts had expected.

    The Navy still has to clean up the toxic mess it left behind, which could cost $300 million or more, and the city of Irvine will use its $400 million share to build roads, utilities and other support facilities.

    It’s easy to see why the Navy accepted Orange County residents’ opposition to changing the base into a major airport in their midst. But the rest of the region will bear part of the cost, in the form of overcrowded airports.

    Here’s how the Navy can make amends: Sell off a modest portion of little-used land at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base for development of an international airport to serve the region’s fastest-growing areas of south Orange County and north San Diego County.

    Then the residents of the Great Park area and others will have a major airport just as convenient as John Wayne, Ontario, L.A. International and, what’s worse, Long Beach Airport. That would please voters in our part of the region.