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OC Register: Tustin Legacy Park breaks ground

by Susan Christian Goulding

Imagine a forest where there is now a desert of dirt. Imagine shade where the sun beats down, serene walkways where no one walks and colorful flowers where monotone brown dominates.

Next, imagine in the distance two enormous blimp hangars – and you have visualized the 26-acre Tustin Legacy Park.

Tustin broke ground on its dream project in September. Earth movers and backhoes are hard at work preparing the barren terrain. Soon, landscapers will add meandering paths, drought-resistant plants and more than 400 trees.

The park is just one small component of the massive mixed-use development underway on 1,600 acres once known as Marine Corps Air Station Tustin. Yet it is hugely important to the city – kicking off transformation of Tustin Legacy’s southwest corner, long vacant and uninviting.

The first segment of the park will be adjacent to the 38-acre Flight at Tustin Legacy – 870,000 square feet of offices with generous views of the soon-to-be great outdoors. Flight is scheduled to begin gestation next spring about the same time Tustin Legacy Park makes its debut.

Even at this early juncture, the park – finally a tangible reality rather than just an artist’s rendering – already has enhanced Flight’s cache, said Tustin City Manager Jeff Parker.

“When you have nice, usable greenbelts, it increases the marketing appeal,” Parker said. “Flight has seen an uptick in interest. This will be a place where employees can take walks during lunch breaks or just sit on a bench and enjoy the fresh air.”

Developed by Lincoln Property Co., Flight will consist of contemporary buildings that house nontraditional, open work spaces. The complex will include a food hall.

“Companies have moved away from putting employees in closed-off cubicles,” Parker said.

Phase one of Tustin Legacy Park, costing $5.1 million, consumes 12 acres at the corner of Red Hill Avenue and Barranca Parkway. It will be augmented in the next couple of years by a 14-acre strip of parkway stretching diagonally to Armstrong Avenue.

Eventually, if all goes as planned, the linear park will continue northeast to the intersection of Jamboree Road and Edinger Avenue – forming contiguous open space connected by pedestrian bridges that span the thoroughfares.

Someday, ideally, commuters will be able to jump off a train at Metrolink’s Tustin Station on Jamboree and stroll through the park to work or home, officials said.

Already, thousands of single-family homes, condos and apartment units have sprouted on the side of Tustin Legacy opposite the park, off Warner Avenue. The long-term master plan features additional housing, offices and retail, as well as sports fields, virtually transforming the enormous lot into its own town.

And it will be a community built around two gargantuan symbols of a bygone era – the hangars that the Marines left behind.

The south hangar is controlled by the city and the north by the county. Tustin Mayor John Nielsen said he hopes that both hangars – or at least the city’s – will stay put.

“They are iconic, historic and something that defines Tustin,” Nielsen said. “You can see them for miles around. Whenever I drive past them, I know I’m home.”

Marine Corps Air Station was built during World War II to shelter the blimps that watched the California coast for Japanese submarines. It was later converted to a helicopter base and training center. After the Marines departed in 1999, most of the land was conveyed by the Navy to Tustin.

“We are very fortunate,” Parker said. “It’s really rare for cities to have ownership of this much land designated for development. And ours is in the heart of Orange County, dead center.”

The newly acquired real estate needed lots of costly improvements to make it usable – including roads, sewers, utilities, drainage and waterlines.

In 2006, Shea Properties agreed to pay $236 million – plus install infrastructure – in exchange for 160 acres on which to build homes, office buildings and a hotel. But the deal fell apart four years later when Shea claimed that declining land values made the venture financially unfeasible.

Cutting out the middle man, Tustin took over the development itself.

“It gives us a tremendous economic advantage, but we’ve got to do it right,” Parker said.

Doing it right has meant turning down one “great” idea after another, Nielsen said: “We have gotten lots of political pressure and lots of pressure from developers to do this or that. We have to be be very careful.”

Parker said that the city has labored to avoid the pitfalls of piecemeal development, especially given its investment in infrastructure – $70 million since 2011.

“We are approached all the time with, ‘Sell me 10 acres,’” he said. “That’s how mistakes can happen. We need to pay ourselves back by developing appropriate properties.”

By the time the first stage of Tustin Legacy Park finishes up next April, Nielsen will be gone from the City Council – having termed out this election cycle. And by the time the entire Tustin Legacy work-in-progress is complete in 20 years – or more – most of the people currently seeing it through will be long retired.

“It’s a little bittersweet, but that’s OK,” Nielsen said. “We’re looking at the long-term and toward future generations.”

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