Home Sweet Home
The power of master-planned communities in Orange County.
By Craig Reem and Burt Shefko
Jimmy Ngo is a 26-year-old new homeowner who has found the American Dream, like about 1 million other Orange County residents who live in a master-planned community. While suburbia in other parts of the country has long been used to define “city flight,” here it accounts for a lifestyle that, across a generation, has been embraced by the consumer.
Ngo, president of St. Paul Biotech, a Garden Grove-based medical device manufacturer, purchased a Taylor Woodrow home in the Las Colinas neighborhood of Irvine’s Portola Springs. He will move in before Christmas and so far likes what he sees. “There’s an artistry involved in the combination of scenery and architecture here within the community” that creates enduring value for him. “It gives me a sense of pride and identity with the community and with other homeowners in the area. The quality also makes it a better long-term investment.
“I don’t need all the space I have now, but I can live here for 10 or 20 years, knowing that when I start a family, the schools will be here from elementary all the way out through college. You almost have a city within a city.”
Ngo, the consumer, is the result of market research that has long been in place to define a master-planned community and all of its elements before the first buyer comes through the model home. Such communities, typically composed of 1,000 homes or more, are planned down to the last shrub and become distinctive villages within a city, such as what Irvine is famous for, or cities unto themselves, such as Rancho Santa Margarita.
“A tremendous amount of market research assures the developer that they’ve targeted and planned and designed that community to coincide with consumers’ preferences,” says Don Smith, principal for EDAW, Inc. Working from the global firm’s Irvine offices, his land use, planning and design firm is the master planner at Heritage Fields the residential and commercial component of the El Toro base. Imagine developing homes around a 1,700-acre playground that will be the 21st century’s first great municipal park; the city of Irvine is developing that portion known as the Great Park. This kind of work is what Orange County’s industry of architects, planners and landscape architects do; and with the work so available and satisfying, it really is an industry of thousands.
Smith thinks of Central Park, which more than 100 years ago was planned and built before much of the city of New York reached there. The park’s boundaries became “edges” (think 5th and 59th avenues). Not so with Smith’s ideas, as he works for master developer Lennar. “That’s the perspective,” he says. “One hundred years from now, the Great Park’s significance will play on the immediate surrounding properties.”
Will it last forever?
An Orange County master-planned community is meant to stand for a Central Park-like length of time, to be relevant for generations rather than becoming a fast-decaying rationale for redevelopment. “The residences that are built in our master-planned communities,” says Randy Jackson of Costa Mesa-based The Planning Center, “are committed for a very long time. They will be there for a couple of hundred years.” Why? Perhaps Irvine Mayor Beth Krom best crystallizes the answer: “You feel the effects of an entire city but have the intimacy of a smaller village.”
Irvine has been designed in large part by The Irvine Co., which owns most of the Irvine Ranch. Company Chairman Donald Bren has overseen the emergence of the Irvine Spectrum for businesses, helped support the emergence of UC Irvine for education, and provided arenas for retail and community. The city is world-famous for its master-planned communities villages that have descriptors all their own such as Woodbridge and Northwood. Planners come from around the country, and from around the world, to take notes.
Joe Davis, president of Irvine Community Development Co., an affiliate of The Irvine Co. responsible for residential community development, says, “If I could identify or summarize the focus of what we do for a living, it would be creating a lifestyle that satisfies the diversity of needs that people have for housing today and provides what people are going to need for the long term elementary schools, middle schools, shopping centers and recreational facilities for people of all ages. The village is the framework of everything we do today. The future well-being of the community is foremost. Forty-nine percent of our buyers already live here on the Irvine Ranch. We’re always looking to the future.”
Success, suggests Krom, is ensured when “a major landowner has the ability to map out a vision and work with the city leadership to see that vision realized. Not every city even has the tools to be (well) planned. What is important at an infrastructure level is the ability to not only build neighborhoods but that the community resources needed to support them are included in the plan. That way, you can grow and still retain a sense of intimacy. And life revolves around neighborhood parks and recreation facilities and neighborhood shopping centers and local schools. That is one of the most unique aspects of a planned community.”
High-rises among suburbia
Even in Orange County, times change. As a new physical housing shape is about to emerge with an urban edge and high-rise views, an era may be ending, though not a way of life. With the possible exception of Disneyland, the suburban home is Orange County’s main identifier.
“We are so uniquely blessed with some of the best master-planned communities in the nation,” says Smith.
“It really is a comprehensive long-term approach,” says Jackson, president of The Planning Center, a planning, designing and environmental consulting firm. “Circulation, land use, parks, and open space and schools, and implementation. You don’t do a grid system and wait for land uses to show up over time. You pre-determine and target who is going to come. Yes, you need a bit of the serendipity, but you don’t want happenstance to occur.
“It’s engineered ahead of time; it’s built ahead of time. That’s really a big feat.”
New homeowner Ngo came from St. Paul, Minn., thus the name of his biotech company. The Cal State Fullerton business grad started his company two years ago because “that’s where the money’s at, and that’s where the joy is at.” He had bought a condo in Irvine’s Oak Creek and moved up to bigger digs in his current address in Quail Hill. But, with family plans dancing in his head, he wanted a structure that would fit the future growth. His $1.2 million home is 3,200 square feet.
“Two kids, at most,” he says with a laugh. “Running up and down the stairs. I’m at the end of a cul-de-sac, so it’s secure enough to be safe, and at the same time, it’s a community of openness and friendliness.”
Smith recalls working on a project years ago where buyers arrived and exclaimed, “This is exactly what I was looking for.” It is a refrain he hopes to duplicate at Heritage Fields.
“There’s a lot more attention drawn from the traditional neighborhoods of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s rather than what was built in the 1950s and ’60s, where there was a big Baby Boom and a rush to build housing, and a lack of community design.
“I think we’re doing it better today.”
Lots of interest
The continuing allure was illustrated in July when the public was invited to Portola Springs for the first time. Despite a cooling home market that has moved from summer breeze to fall frigid, some 10,000 people crowded in to tour the community.
“It’s a concept that began in the 1960s and hasn’t changed since…other than improving,” says Ray Watson, former president/CEO of The Irvine Co. and originating visionary of “the villages” concept that predominates on the Irvine Ranch.
Watson says that Balboa Island, of all places, had a major influence in the development of his ideas. “It was an ideal model. It had a mixture of housing types, shops and restaurants, a walk-about atmosphere and a strong sense of identity mainly because it was an island.” So, for the most part, after considerable market research, the Balboa Island model was replicated throughout the entire ranch, with each village Eastbluff, Turtle Rock, Woodbury, etc. being connected to the other by walking and biking trails.
Throughout the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, builders, developers and architects from around the country and world made pilgrimages to Orange County to learn residential master planning from the best. Portola Springs is the latest and one of the last that will be built within the larger framework of the overall Irvine Ranch master plan. Countywide, as large tracts of buildable land disappear, a new renaissance that is markedly different is taking shape of urban planning such as the Platinum Triangle in Anaheim, which will be defined by high-rises as much as by its 24/7 lifestyle. But the bedrock for county life has long been laid, and it will be here long after the final high-rise is erected, though for today’s market of new, master-planned communities, choices are growing slim.
There is Portola Springs in Irvine’s Northern Sphere, and thousands of houses are being planned, or being built, at the El Toro base, the Tustin base, in Rancho Mission Viejo, and in East Orange. That is about it.
Out of the City
The latest effort
As a 2,600-acre community set against the rolling hills of Lomas Ridge, Portola Springs now has two residential enclaves with 12 neighborhoods. When complete, the community will consist of five enclaves with a total of 4,500 residences. The community is surrounded by permanent open space. Part of the 53,000-acre Irvine Ranch Land Reserve is literally just across the road, and the many miles of permanently protected hiking, biking and riding trails in the preserve are an important element in the lifestyle Portola Springs offers prospective residents. One of the keys to a planned community is portability walkways, open spaces and trails and other pedestrian-friendly pieces that bring neighborhoods together rather than, like a garage door slamming, keep them apart.
“As a result of extensive and careful planning, Portola Springs is able to attract a broad diversity of people, which in turn gives you a better community,” says Martin Lighterink, division president of Orange County and San Diego for KB Home, one of the builders at Portola Springs. “In a master-planned community, the designers and planners are able to pool all the amenities, providing a much nicer” environment for homebuyers than one builder alone could afford to provide. When Portola Springs is complete, residents will have 18 neighborhood parks, seven pools, a 25-acre lighted community park and sports complex and an 18,000-square-foot multipurpose community facility. There will also be two neighborhood schools, a fire station and a daycare center. It is this sense of completeness that has attracted buyers to planned communities for 40 years and made the Orange County lifestyle the envy of much of the world.
“We have things that big cities in the world don’t have,” says The Planning Center’s Jackson. “And we still have our suburban master-planned communities that we like our walkability, our values, our parks, our open space, our lakes, our schools.”
Says Jose Alkon, vice president of sales and marketing for Taylor Woodrow Homes’ Southern California Division, another Portola builder, “(The Irvine Co.) consciously thinks through the designs of these communities so they really appeal to the people that move into them. Residents can walk to the grocery store, the open spaces, the local parks and pools and all the recreation areas. Everything is planned to be within a short distance of the home.”
Researching the whole
Consumer research helps builders soften their market vulnerability; for the consumer, smart planning provides an ideal lifestyle and increases their survivability in case the market should go through another downturn.
Says Patrick McCabe, project manager for William Lyon Homes, “There may be 10 different builders working in there, but The Irvine Co. knows what will work and what you should build within the square footages assigned to your project. They arrange it so that one builder doesn’t intrude on another builder’s square footage or price range and they hold the builder to that. What that does for the village, down the line, is keep everything competitive.
“The same holds true for resale. When a homeowner wants to sell their home, they won’t have to worry about going up against a large number of similar homes with similar square footages and similar prices within the village.”
Tara Bleakley, senior manager for John Burns Real Estate Consulting, notes, “Portola Springs has some amazing features to it that make people want to be a part of it. The topography alone is so different from some of those flatter communities that don’t offer the views Portola Springs does. They’ve also given greater consideration to the ecosystem. Being more aware of the landscape, the trees, the paths, the trails and even some of the old orchards that have been retained, these are things that make people believe they and the builders are being better to the earth and that’s a good thing.”
A pedestrian bridge over Portola Springs Parkway will connect one side of the village to the other, with many biking and walking trails that wind their way throughout the entire community, connecting trails that lead to open spaces and ultimately tie into a larger trail that connects all the way to the ocean. The Irvine Ranch Land Reserve, a nonprofit entity, is charged with the design and construction of trails and staging areas. The Reserve is also responsible for ongoing trail maintenance, the provision of docents and management of the protected property into perpetuity.
“Portola Springs is a community that has boundaries. Boundaries not given by walls, but boundaries that are distinctive by defining that ‘place’ through architectural solutions, through road patterns, and through landscape,” says Robert Hidey, of Robert Hidey Architects. “There’s an integral interrelation of those ideas that define that place, by giving it its identity and distinction.”
At the center
At the center of the village is Portola Springs Plaza, with shopping, services, entertainment and dining, with some restaurants overlooking the open spaces. Throughout the community are neighborhood parks with BBQ pits and shaded picnic areas, tot-lots, basketball courts, tennis courts and soccer fields.
Ken Agid, director of residential marketing in the early days of Irvine Ranch’s development, notes, “Eastbluff, the first master planned community in Irvine, if not the country, has all the nuance of this sense of village and place. Today, what makes it such a strong place in people’s minds, and brings value to it, is the strong sense of belonging to a very identifiable, cohesive neighborhood. The effort was made, in all of Irvine, to create this series of very distinctive communities. They had definable entry points; they had entry monuments monuments not to placate someone’s ego, but to reinforce this concept of a sense of place with the notion that each place would have a variety of housing choices that would support a broad range of compatible consumer segments. Also, that it would have the ability to internally satisfy the needs of the community with shopping and recreation centers that were integral to the community.”
Early on the decision was made to create an overall master plan for the entire ranch and control all development instead of selling off pieces to other developers and letting them do as they liked. Ray Watson decreed that all houses must be designed by architects, not by builders on legal pads.
The success of a master-planned community is directly related to the support given it by the master planner/developer. The success of The Irvine Co. and its master-planned communities is its ability to understand the consumer. According to Agid, Irvine’s marketing and consumer research basically allows the consumer to speak directly to the architect as to how many bedrooms they want, where they want them, whether or not they want a fireplace and, if so, where? Which are the most important rooms in the house, what layout works best in the kitchen and what amenities are wanted in each home?
The same is true with the planners. What types of parks does the buyer want, what recreational facilities would they like to have and how do they want to spend their leisure time in the community? Basically, they are acting as the agent for the consumer in translating their wants, needs and desires to the design team.
Over the next 20 years, the building of large master-planned communities will come to an end in Orange County. But the result will remain. OCM