Opinion: Musings on the Coast

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One Thing Leads to Another… or Two

Back in the late 1980s, I became Chair of Art Spaces Irvine, which had only one purpose: buy and place largish public sculptures in Irvine. Our budget was tiny, with no help from the City except liability insurance coverage (Irvine is not exactly a city of the arts).

Nevertheless, we fulfilled our function and dreamed of bigger things.

The first big idea was to create a large park, which in that totally over-master-planned city, would have no zoning, master plan, and none of the usual city rules that kill spontaneity. We wanted to introduce a bit of cultural chaos. We even took to calling it the “attic” of the city, a place where Irvine could be more like Laguna.

We even found a great location in East Irvine, huge and easily accessible.

Then my brother Walkie, who was on the Board, asked a critical question: who would visit that park? It had competition from the beach, desert, mountains, Disneyland, and plenty of others.

So how?

Luckily, one of our Board Members, David Price, was the son of Buzz Price, who had performed the original study on where to locate Disneyland. Buzz suggested we conduct a “charette,” or public/private study to determine what might be popular in OC.  It took many months but the results for unmistakable. The big missing in Orange County was a “museum” aimed at teaching young people science concepts, like how planes fly, in a hands-on, exciting manner. An example existed in San Francisco called The Exploratorium, which we promptly visited. It is “a gateway to exploring, science, art and human perception.” Mostly, it is a huge magnet for children, who can push buttons and interact with exhibits in a multitude of experiences children love.

The charrette concluded that there was a huge demand for that in Orange County.

Then a new Irvine mayor was elected who hated public support for arts and cancelled our insurance policy, so we ceased to exist just in time for the 1990s economic downturn.

But the two ideas lingered: a giant park in Irvine and interactive science learning “museum” for kids.

Within 10 years, both came to fruition. First, the federal government closed Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, prompting Newport Beach to push its conversion into an international public airport (thinking it would stop flights—and their hated noise and particulate pollution—from John Wayne Airport). That this would destroyed the quality of life for all of South County (including Laguna) was not relevant to them.

Then yet another new mayor in Irvine was elected on a platform of stopping the airport. He knew about our Big Park idea, called it The Great Park and it exists today—not a hated international airport right behind Laguna’s hills.

As for the Exploratorium idea, my brother Walkie ran with it and created The Discovery Science Center, now called Discovery Cube Orange County, located off Main Street in Santa Ana.

In future columns, I will detail the creation of each and how they affect Laguna, but for now I must say, not bad for a tiny organization with no budget.

Michael is a Laguna Beach resident and principal officer emeritus of Laguna Forward PAC.

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