A Place Called Home: University Park Was The First Expression Of Irvine’s Master-Plan Concept
Ellen Bell, Irvine World News, February 20, 2014
University Park is a place of firsts. Not only was it the first village built in what would later become the city of Irvine, it had the first library, the first high school and the first retail shopping center. But for the families that moved into the original University Park neighborhoods, it was the first place in Irvine that they called home.
Built in 1965, the village of University Park was a real-life expression of the master-plan concept. The site was chosen because of its proximity to the infrastructure at the newly built UC Irvine. Since the area was of little agricultural use, the Irvine Co. determined that houses would grow better there than row crops and citrus. Additionally, the village would border the new 405 freeway, which had not yet made its way through the Irvine Ranch.
Upscale single-family home development had already begun on coastal Irvine Ranch land. The idea of planning a mix of multifamily and single-family homes was still a novel concept.
“The theory behind the residential communities was quite simple,” said former Irvine Co. planner Albert Trevino Jr. “We wanted to provide a variety of housing types. We wanted to break the static social structure that existed in suburbia.”
University Park was intended to foster a demographic mix of incomes and family compositions. “The people and children growing up here know what it’s like to have senior adults living close by,” Trevino said. “They know what its like to have rental, sales, townhouses and the single units in the same neighborhood.”
In many ways, University Park was a living laboratory for innovative planning concepts. Irvine Master Plan designer William Pereira envisioned a modern suburban place created out of residential traditions of the past. He wanted to create a city that was independent of the automobile, where greenbelts of open park space link neighborhoods with pedestrian paths and bikeways. In University Park, a spacious greenbelt flows between both types of housing, which are unified by the central recreation area, shopping and the elementary school.
Another unique innovation of University Park was a redesigned cul-de-sac. Traditionally, cul-de-sacs were circular closed streets surrounded by homes. University Park featured cul-de-sacs of a different shape: a rectangle.
“The old circular cul-de-sac was a constant annoyance to residents who found it unmanageable to park at street side,” Trevino said. “With the new approach, we park the cars in a centered parking area with drive space all around it. Finally, we landscape the parking area and wind up with a unique, practical and beautiful cul-de-sac.”
The cul-de-sacs in University Park also offered another practical advantage. Residents enjoyed the benefits of a living on a seemingly private street that was a public road. Garbage trucks and firetrucks also had access.
The visionary planning of Pereira and the innovative design of Irvine Co. planners combined to create a real-life success at University Park. The first residents, who moved to the village when it was still isolated from current conveniences, remember the early days when they enjoyed the brand-new community “out in the country.”
“I recall a place so new I felt like a suburban pioneer,” said Greg Nylen, who moved to University Park in 1969. “The closest movie theater was at Fashion Island; the nearest Chinese restaurant was Shanghai Pine Gardens on Balboa Island; and South Coast Plaza was a fairly sleepy and newly minted family shopping mall. But it was a paradise for a young kid with a bike and hiking boots.”
Because most of the initial University Park residents moved in at the same time, everyone was new in the neighborhood. An instant sense of community grew during impromptu social gatherings at the Pavilion Pool and while watching the annual Fourth of July bike parade. University Park was the setting for indelible childhood memories for kids who spent hours playing in the orange groves, skate park or Adventure Playground.
“My parents and the parents of my friends started the churches, formed the Little Leagues, Girl Scout troops, swim teams for a new, growing city,” said Julie Stanek Levier, a former University Park resident.
Today, University Park remains as a testament to sound community planning. It is recognized nationally by students of urban planning for its high level of design quality.
Author and architecture historian Alan Hess described his first encounter with University Park when he was looking for a home nine years ago. “I could see right away that the progressive planning ideals that I had learned about in architecture school had actually been built and were here,” Hess said. “The concept really happened, and it worked.”