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Visionary Dreamers Created a Modern City for Dreamers

Fifty years ago, the Irvine Company celebrated its 100th corporate anniversary by giving the public a peek at its thousands of acres of mostly vacant, fenced land that was being used to grow crops and run cattle.

Curious visitors drove around, caught a glimpse of the great outdoors, saw agricultural and cattle operations, drank fresh orange juice at the packinghouse, and gathered for a reception on the grass of the former Irvine family home that was being used to house a growing staff of planners.

Fast-forward and today the land has been transformed into the modern city of Irvine, widely considered the largest and most successful master-planned community ever created by a single company.

Built from scratch by the Irvine Company based upon a sophisticated master plan to give birth to a new city around a new campus of the University of California, it’s a vibrant city of 220,000.

By most measures, it has lived up to the original vision of its planners who saw a future where “Irvine residents will live in an environment that is as attractive, as balanced, and as enduring as the science of urban planning can make it.  It is planned so that it will improve with age, rather than deteriorate.”

It is celebrated and recognized worldwide as a city that works

It is celebrated and recognized worldwide as a city that works.

If you believe in lists, Irvine is at or near the top of every list that compares mid-sized cities in America for livability, safety, quality of its schools, student test scores, educational attainment of its residents, diversity of its citizens and its employment base, jobs-to-resident ratios, low unemployment, and short commutes.

By design, Irvine has a broad range of housing, one of the nation’s highest ranked public universities, retail and entertainment centers for every taste, a sophisticated network of biking and hiking trails, and parks, green belts, and dedicated open space on more than a third of its 65 square miles.

As Rob Elliot, the company’s Group Senior Vice President for Urban Planning and Design says, “The words written by the original planners and the profound vision that inspired them still inspire me.   Upon reflection, their plans, their vision, and the huge risk and investment it entailed was nothing short of audacious.

Jeffrey Open Space

Jeffrey Open Space

“I think they understood that if their vision stood any chance of succeeding, Irvine would need to provide a thoughtful, balanced mix of land uses and attract generations of residents who unabashedly loved the high quality of life it provided.”

Not long before he passed away in 2012, the company’s original planner and subsequent president, Ray Watson, took a driving trip around Irvine with a company colleague and said the implementation of the master plan exceeded every hope and expectation he had.

“I see two things,” Watson said as he looked through the windshield.  “First, I see adherence to the principles of community planning, which include diversity within our communities, and a healthy mix of housing types, and a balance between housing and jobs.  I see a quality of design and architecture, and focus on detail, that is beyond what I could have expected.

“Second, I see a company that recognizes and honors the importance of open space,” he said.   “In the end, the vast amount of land that has been set aside says this company treasures open space as much as it does development.”

In discussing Irvine’s success, current and former company executives note that, while the original master plan was both comprehensive and sophisticated, the Irvine Company constantly sought new ideas and concepts for its implementation.

The company’s creative leadership in transportation improvements – both public freeways and the toll roads that move people around and through Irvine – are regarded as major infrastructure legacies that improve mobility for Irvine’s residents and businesses.

And the company’s innovative work in water quality and reclaimed water initiatives sent new high standards for development in California.

Irvine Spectrum

Irvine Spectrum Center

Most of all, success came because the world changed, so did the company.  It adapted.  A major example of this is Irvine Spectrum. While fulfilling its original purpose – to become one of Irvine’s, and the region’s, most significant job centers – Irvine Spectrum has evolved to include an imaginative and attractive retail and entertainment center. It’s gone even further, with the introduction of housing and the creation of high-rise towers to house important white-collar companies.

The original Irvine Company planners understood that the presence of the University of California, Irvine, would be important to the fabric of the larger community. But it’s unlikely that, 50 years ago, they could have imagined the enormous benefit the university would bring to the community in terms of employment, economic growth, and producing highly educated workers and citizens.

Fifty years ago, 95 percent of the people working on The Irvine Ranch labored mostly with their hands. Today, 95 percent of the people working in Irvine mostly use their brains. That reversal reflects the influence of UCI and the Irvine Company’s planning for commercial and industrial development.

One of the highest compliments paid to the company is the number of planners and developers around the world who have studied what the company has done and essentially copied it.  Watson liked to say that all the awards in the world couldn’t compete with the satisfaction he felt that people came to Irvine, bought into the concept of life in a master-planned city, and stayed.

“It’s the ultimate measure of our success,” he would say, acknowledging that some people preferred living in a city that was not quite as “manicured” and with fewer rules. Some people find comfort and security in the rules, he said, and others are free to exercise one of the most precious rights in America: to vote with their feet.

The creation of Irvine was the work of a succession of gifted people in every discipline of development.  And it required a constructive collaboration with residents, their elected representatives and professionals associated with the many governmental entities that would influence land use decisions.

Modern City for Dreamers

Woodbridge Village

Watson may have summarized it best:

“The company never has operated in a vacuum.  It’s part of the community, and has to work with the community to accomplish its goals.”

“Our most challenging job has always been to communicate and understand the people who live here, their needs and preferences.”

It is an endeavor that began many years ago, and that will continue as the Irvine Company embarks on its next 150 years.

Land. Legacy. Life.