On Tuesday, Jan. 25, members of the Great Park Board unanimously voted to direct city staff to begin conducting a feasibility study on the 125-acre ARDA site for a botanical garden and other future components, including a veterans memorial park.

In September, the Great Park Board, in the capacity of the Irvine City Council, voted unanimously to begin a selection process for a suitable place for a botanical garden on a site, “no less than 75 acres.” Then, the proposed location was located near Irvine’s Cultural Terrance within the Great Park.

The item, brought to the Great Park Board by Director Tammy Kim, takes a new approach to bringing the concept of a long-discussed botanical garden into Irvine to fruition.

In an interview with Irvine Weekly prior to the January 25 meeting, Kim explained that she presented the memo specifically for the ARDA site, which is located on Irvine Blvd., on the northern edge of the Orange County Great Park, because she is confident the 125-acre site will be the most suitable location for a botanical garden in Irvine.

“In my conversations with city staff, that’s going to be the only place that we realistically can have a garden of that size and that magnitude, primarily because there’s nothing underground – which belongs to the Navy,” she said. “At this point, time is of the essence here. The city has been going back and forth for years and years and years about a botanical garden and next thing you know – 10, 12, 15 years have passed and there’s no garden.”

Kim said her confidence to build a botanical garden within the ARDA site is high, due to the fact that there is no encumbrance on what can go underneath the ground, including tree roots, within the site’s 125-acres. Kim explained that there are some portions of the Great Park still owned by the U.S. Navy, meaning the city would be unable to plant trees or build in those areas.

“We need to do the site selection, then we need to issue an RFP to do a feasibility study to talk about these different components that will make sense,” she said. “It is a big shift. For many years it’s just been theory – but there hasn’t been a definitive site selected or discussed.”

The idea of a botanical garden has always been part of the Great Park’s game plan. However, Kim admitted the idea got pushed to the bottom of the city’s to-do list as conversations regarding the veterans cemetery took center stage.

“This is a big first step, the site selection,” she said. “That has been where no one else has gone before.”

During the Great Park Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 25, Kim said she hoped this conversation would help start the process of identifying site preparation costs, operation costs and revenue sources for the botanical garden project in order to be shovel-ready by January 2023.

In June, the ARDA site was one of two sites studied by the California Association of Veteran Affairs to determine the cost-effectiveness for a veterans cemetery in Irvine. CalVet found the ARDA site to be less cost-effective than the Golf Course site by $35 million.

Ultimately, the Irvine City Council failed to reach an agreement on a site for a veterans cemetery in Irvine. Since then, the veterans cemetery project has gained momentum in Gypsum Canyon and has maintained the support of the county board of supervisors and all 34 cities in the county.

Irvine City Council Member Larry Agran has become the county’s most outspoken public official in favor of building the veterans cemetery on the ARDA site. In fact, Argan is the only public official to not support the Gypsum Canyon site, but shared his enthusiasm and support for Kim’s item during the meeting.

“I’m just so appreciative that we’re finally opening this discussion, and I welcome the thoughts of others and see if we can carry it on after this introductory conversation,” Agran said.

While Agran supported the motion, at one point in the conversation, he seemed surprised at the fact that the discussion included the entire 125-acres for a botanical garden.

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan shared her excitement regarding the step forward with the Great Park Botanical Garden project, adding that she has been working with the Great Park Garden Association.

“We do have a great task before us, but what I’d like to see is that we come together and not only build a world-class botanical garden, but include in it a veteran memorial park and at the same time, do it in a way that is cost-effective,” Khan said. “Not repeating things of the past and building on what we have already.”

While the project has yet to break ground, some say it has the capacity to capture national attention.

Teena Spindler, President of the Great Park Garden Association, addressed the Great Park Board during public comment on January 25. In her speech, Spindler thanked the board for their commitment to the botanical gardens project and shared some exciting news regarding a study from one of the most respected collegiate landscape architecture programs in the world.

“As our name implies, Great Park Garden Coalition, we hope to encourage a coalition of residents and the affiliated or related nonprofits such as Solutions For Urban Agriculture, as we want to have so many different educational opportunities, food opportunities, nature opportunities that we possibly can in this botanical garden,” Spindler said. “As just a side note – we’ve been contacted by the graduate program of Cornell University’s Landscape Architecture Department and they would like to use the botanical garden at the Great Park for their case study this spring – so you can rest assured that this project is attracting national attention.”

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