Home for USA Water Polo to make a splash at Orange County Great Park

With seasoned Olympians in Team USA shirts and pint-sized junior athletes waiting to burst into applause, Irvine officials agreed Tuesday, Oct. 22, to move ahead with plans for a top-shelf water polo complex at the Orange County Great Park.

Under a partnership with developer FivePoint Holdings, which created many of the park’s existing features, the city will build a pool facility where the U.S. Olympic team will train as well as a field house for basketball and volleyball and a parking garage to serve those and the park’s other sports facilities. In another deal finalized Tuesday, rides on the Great Park balloon become free again.

“I think we’ll finally be able to call Irvine our home,” two-time Olympian Maggie Steffens said in celebrating the facility where the U.S. men’s and women’s water polo teams will be able to practice together and host tournaments.

A rendering shows the conceptual look of a planned field house for basketball and volleyball planned at the Orange County Great Park. (Courtesy of FivePoint Holdings)

A conceptual rendering depicts an aquatic complex planned in Irvine’s Great Park that would be home to USA Water Polo and an Olympic training facility. (Courtesy of FivePoint Holdings)

Irvine has approved plans for FivePoint X, which this rendering shows as a collection of shops and restaurants with outdoor gathering spaces, next to the Great Park Ice facility. (Courtesy of FivePoint Holdings)

A new parking structure planned for the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, at right, will serve new water polo and basketball facilities as well as the existing ice rink and sports fields. (Courtesy of FivePoint Holdings)

The planned new home of USA Water Polo at the Orange County Great Park would include practice and competition pools and covered stands for spectators. (Courtesy of FivePoint Holdings)

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Tuesday’s decision, applauded at an afternoon Great Park board meeting and approved by the Irvine City Council the same evening, means the city will build $250 million in projects and pay for them by borrowing against future taxes homeowners pay toward the area’s community facilities. Once they’re open, the facilities will complete the 688-acre park’s sports-focused western quadrant.

Also Tuesday, FivePoint agreed to sponsor the Great Park’s iconic orange balloon ride – originally a gift to the city from the developer – and drop the $10 admission charge.

With financing in place, officials will complete final design of the water polo facility and may begin construction by early 2021. That gives ample time for the national teams to move in and begin preparing for the 2024 Paris Olympics, USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey said in an interview Monday.

He also stressed the community benefits of the pool complex: USA Water Polo offers water safety programs and has recreational leagues for athletes of all ages, and while it will manage the facility, the city will get guaranteed pool time for its own swimming activities.

“For us, this is a dream come true,” Ramsey said. “We could not be doing the scale of what we’re doing without this partnership.”

The financing arrangement appears advantageous to the city, which won’t have to spend its own money on construction.

As homes are built and sold in Great Park neighborhoods, those homeowners pay taxes toward infrastructure and maintenance at the park, and some of the money will be available to the city and the developer to add more park features, FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad said. The financing arrangement does not increase the tax rate.

“If you build the right amenities, people will be willing to pay you a premium” to live near and regularly enjoy them, he said.

FivePoint is pledging the $250 million out of the pool of taxes it expects in the future, but it’s not losing revenue, because those dollars must be spent for the Great Park’s benefit, Irvine City Manager John Russo said.

The additional park amenities also benefit FivePoint: the city Planning Commission on Thursday, Oct. 17, approved the developer’s plans for a hotel, restaurants, shops and offices on the park’s edge. The businesses will have something of a captive audience of people attending sports tournaments and competitions or using the park’s trails and open space. Besides water polo, the park has soccer, baseball and softball fields, tennis courts and an ice rink where the Anaheim Ducks hold some practices.

Having the new facilities and parking “adds a tremendous value” to FivePoint’s developments, Russo said.

The balloon has been at the Great Park since before there even was a park. But until Irvine struck the sponsorship deal with FivePoint, city leaders worried they’d have to shut the balloon down because it was running at a loss.

“This is really great news,” Mayor Christina Shea said Tuesday. “Now we’re saving residents a million, almost a million dollars a year.”