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Pelican Hill: Relentless Innovation at its Finest

BY CLARENCE BARKER
Mr. Barker spent more than 20 years with the Irvine Company, retiring in 2007 as President of the company’s Investment Properties Group. He continued to serve the company as a consultant to help oversee completion of the Pelican Hill Resort.

For many of us long associated with the Irvine Company, the Pelican Hill Resort is considered the Crown Jewel — the most difficult, complex, and consequential project ever undertaken by the company.

For those of us who helped give it life, the resort project will be the most rewarding in our careers; a source of personal pride and honor.

We understand it represents much more than a complicated 36-month undertaking that involved seven general contractors, 320 sub-contractors, 2,000 suppliers, and 1,800 workers at the peak of construction.

It is much bigger than the supply sourcing challenge that required securing custom building materials and hardware, unique fabrics, and one-of-a-kind tapestries, carpets and linens from around the globe.

Pelican Hill Resort is rooted in the company’s obsessive attention to detail, big and small

The important story of the Pelican Hill Resort is rooted in the company’s obsessive attention to detail, big and small – meticulous community planning and attitude assessments, sensitive site planning that honors the terrain as nature created it, sophisticated and timeless architecture, construction using exquisite materials from around the globe, and interior and landscape design that are powerful statements of understated and refined elegance.

Above all, it is a story about a company determined to do something special for the ages on a site on the Newport Coast that rivals any on the historic Irvine Ranch that it has owned for 150 years.

My many former colleagues and friends at the company believe the Pelican Hill Resort, designed and custom built to the company’s exacting standards of quality, detail, taste and authenticity, will last for centuries and take a treasured place among the venerable hotels of the world.

Think the Grand Hotels of Europe.

We also have little doubt that over time, its majestic perch and visitor experience above the Newport Coast will define for the world the beauty and unparalleled quality of life that exists along this Southern California stretch of the Pacific.

There’s simply nothing like it.

And for local residents, as promised, it will be an compelling gathering place for that glass of wine at sunset, a special meal, an exceptional spa experience, or a round of golf at one of the country’s best and most beautiful layouts.

Already, the resort is lifting tourism to Newport Beach, supporting small businesses, employment, and making a notable contribution to the city’s sales and occupancy tax revenues.

My friend, Ralph Grippo, who heads the Irvine Company’s Resort Company, was confident years ago that the resort would be successful.

Rotunda overlooking the Pacific

Rotunda overlooking the Pacific

Ralph said three big things would bring people to Pelican Hill from around the world: The location, a “magical place,” with its panoramic views of the Pacific. The comfort, elegance, and ambience of the resort itself.  And the resort’s commitment to service that makes every guest feel they are the most important person in the world.

Pelican Hill’s appeal is enhanced because it also connects guests to all that’s special nearby — from Laguna Beach to Crystal Cove to Newport’s beaches and bays; from Corona del Mar to Fashion Island to Balboa Island; and to Duffy boats and the Balboa Island Ferry.

Less understood is how the plans for the resort evolved, the product of the Irvine Company’s core DNA that I call relentless innovation.  It’s a default state of mind that is characterized by imagination, adaptation, creativity, courage, confidence, and decision-making for the long term.

While not described in any company documents, it’s a force within the company that for years has adapted to ever-changing community and consumer preferences, as well as economic forces, to stay at the forefront of product innovation, land use planning and design.

The planning for Newport Coast started almost 50 years ago, and always envisioned a resort element that would serve both the visiting public and surrounding residents.

The Coastal Commission approval in 1988 permitted 2,500 visitor rooms and two golf courses in the 10,000-acre project area.  The company explored a variety of ways to accomplish its goals, including partnering with several major hotel and resort operators to build as many as three separate properties.

In the end, the company decided first to retain Tom Fazio to design and build the two memorable golf courses along the sloping hills and ravines of the area, unconstrained by development issues.  It also collaborated with Marriott to build what has become one of its most successful timeshare products in the world on the south side of Pelican Hill Road; Marriott Newport Coast Villas oversees 700 visitor-serving units.

A company decision was taking shape to proceed on its own to create a smaller, luxury hotel adjacent to the golf course.

Originally announced in 2004 as a hotel with a Santa Barbara-style Spanish-Mediterranean influence, the company shifted to an Italian design and architectural palate, more in keeping with the custom homes and wishes of the surrounding neighbors.

The inspiration for look and feel came from Andrea Palladio, the 16th century Italian architect widely considered the most influential individual in the history of Western architecture.

Palladio’s buildings – palaces, villas and churches — still dot the Venetian landscape, and have been “valued for centuries as the quintessence of High Renaissance calm and harmony,” according to “A History of Western Architecture.”  Many are clustered in Vicenza, and convey a sense of timeless taste and function almost 500 years later.

Andrea Palladio Inspired Architecture

Andrea Palladio Inspired Architecture

Calm and harmony and timelessness were central to the Irvine Company’s vision for Pelican Hill – with an important Southern California ingredient:  Informality.

“Those classic buildings tend to want to be formal, but the company didn’t want a destination that radiated grandiosity,” says my colleague Brad Neal, who worked on the resort from 2004-2008.  “Instead, we wanted a balance of classical perfection and unpretentious Southern California informality.  A challenge, for sure.  But we made it work.”

Today, when you arrive, you know it is an elegant hotel, but it has a comfortable, relaxed, and warm residential ambience.

One of the most distinctive Palladian-inspired features greets guests as they enter the main lobby:  A beautiful rotunda inspired by La Rotonda, the striking Palladian villa that still stands near Vicenza.  The rotunda’s dominating architectural influence ripples throughout the main hotel’s other major spaces, including the dining room and ballroom.

Informality, intimacy and privacy are achieved because the resort buildings – which Brad calls “the small community of villas” – were built low in scale, respectful of the contours of the hillside.  The 204 bungalows and 128 villas were built in appropriate places to enhance their visual appeal, avoid being disruptive, respect the concerns of the neighbors, take advantage of breathtaking ocean views, and be sensitive to environmental considerations.

Today’s most memorable resorts create memorable experiences for their guests.   At Pelican Hill, the Fazio golf courses create a giant wow for those who play.  But probably nothing outshines the Coliseum Pool, perfectly circular and 136 feet in diameter, and the strongest focal point in the resort.  It’s the biggest pool of its kind on the planet.

The pool’s perfectly circular form is pure Palladio.  And with the structures that ring it, it’s difficult not to make comparisons – at least in terms of shape, scale and beauty – to the ancient Coliseum in Rome.

Coliseum Pool

Coliseum Pool

The pool is carpeted with 1.5 million aqua marine tiles made of recycled glass in Mexico.   The 1 ½-inch tiles were applied by hand by teams of craftsmen, sometimes numbering as many as 50 at a time.

Chris Marsh, the resort’s project director, recalls that just weeks before the resort was to open, the pool was filled with water and the project team noticed the appearance of distinct concentric rings in parts of the pool where the water was supposed to be crystal clear.

The culprit was tiles that had become slightly discolored due to aging.  The light-refracting nature of the water made their flaws more conspicuous.

“We drained the pool, and every tile was removed and ultimately replaced by new tiles that were produced under a strict new quality control program overseen by members of our team,” Chris recalls.

It’s a small story about a small piece of the resort’s creation, but it shines a big light on the Irvine Company’s pursuit of perfection; another glimpse into the company’s DNA of relentless innovation that I described earlier.

A visitor today will never see other evidence of the company’s sensitivity to the site as the resort was being constructed.

Extraordinary steps were taken to capture runoff from the resort, and to protect the beach and ocean below at Crystal Cove State Park.   Two cisterns the size of Olympic swimming pools were buried under the golf course to collect virtually any resort runoff, including rainwater.

“The system was designed to handle a 100-year storm event,” Chris says.  “Creating it involved environmentalists, water engineers, hydrologists, and biologists.  It was a huge water quality initiative.  We were pioneering.”

Runoff captured in the cisterns is treated and pumped to lakes on the course, and ultimately reused to irrigate the course.

If you understand the full sweep of the Pelican Hill Resort story, you’ll better understand how the Irvine Company accomplished the successful and widely-praised master planning and master building of its land for more than 50 years.

Land. Legacy. Life.