For Donald Bren, Giving Back Was Always In The Plan

Stand on a hill and take in the view, and the chances are good you’ll see the imprint of the Irvine Co. on the Orange County landscape around you. For more than 30 years, the man responsible for shaping much of that landscape has been Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren.

The influence of Bren, 78, is, like the landscape, almost too big to take in at a glance. Whether it’s tens of millions spent on gifts to UC Irvine and area schools, the design of the Irvine Spectrum or a new resort at Pelican Hill, or the famously master-planned city of Irvine itself, billionaire Bren’s stamp is indelible.

But Bren, who lives on Harbor Island in Newport Beach, is also famously shy, rarely granting interviews or sharing his plans for the future. He made an exception this week to talk about his latest gift: 20,000 acres of rugged canyon lands in northern Orange County, accepted as new parkland Tuesday by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Bren spoke of his desire to leave not just a legacy of development, but of open space and habitat preservation as well. That was master-planned too. In 33 years with the Irvine Co., he said, his interest in preserving some of the county’s natural surroundings steadily grew.

Now, he says, the 20,000-acre gift makes it complete, with about 50 percent of the historic 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch preserved from development.

Q. How did all this start?
A. I go back to the beginning. In 1864 James Irvine and his partners assembled the Irvine Ranch. It was made up of three land grants – Spanish and Mexican land grants. But it was interesting: at the time the grants could only be obtained if there was a solid plan for the caring of the land. It was a demand by the king of Spain. So there was concern about the land in 1864.

And in 1894, the Irvine Co. was incorporated. It was one of five of the first corporations in the state of California.

During that time, again in 1897, the company donated 304 acres of land to the people in Orange County. The people nicknamed it the picnic grounds. Today it’s known as the Irvine Regional Park. It’s small in relation to the open space and parklands that have been created since.

Q. What’s next on the timeline?
A. 1960 was very important, almost a monumental period here for the company. The company has always been operated as a corporation with a board of directors and decided that they would embark on a master plan. They hired William Pereira, a well-known architect and master planner, to master plan the ranch.

Q. That was new at the time, wasn’t it?
A. Yes. There were a number of properties around United States that were under a master plan. Most of those were in the east. I think one was in the west. But it was cutting edge. And the directors of the company, they were concerned with the urban pressures from the Los Angeles metropolitan area moving south. Although they were in the agricultural business, they knew the transition was going be coming. They felt best way to protect their asset was to master plan it.

In that plan was a centerpiece that was proposed by Pereira, the 93,000-acre master plan. That centerpiece is now known as the University of California, Irvine. The company donated 1,000 acres to the university.

In 1969 the company donated 345 acres to create the William Mason Regional Park. Mason was the chairman of the Irvine Co., and he had died the year before prematurely.

I became a shareholder in the Irvine Co. in 1977, and I joined a New York investment group to invest in the Irvine properties. The sellers of the land were the Irvine family members plus the Irvine Foundation.

Q. What was your occupation at that time?
A. I was a builder. I would say a master builder and a master planner. My experience came from creating smaller master plans around the state of California but the largest is called Mission Viejo. And that was 10,000 acres – the master plan of a 52,000-acre ranch. Mission Viejo Ranch was 52,000 acres.

Q. It sounds like, at the beginning, the open space part of it for you was very closely tied to the experience of the people who would live in these communities.

A. It was something more than just a tract of homes. As we saw in the early days, in the western part of Orange County — I won’t name the cities. You know them. They grew without well-planned parks and recreation, and when open space opportunities were there, they weren’t taken advantage of. They were passed by. There was something grander, better for the community, than those early methods of home development.

And here at Irvine it’s more than just home development. We’ve created a new city. A new city was founded in 1971: the city of Irvine. And today we have, what, 250,000 people, and, interestingly enough, 250,000 jobs that have been created.

It’s been a 30-year movement to expand the open space and parklands, creating large scale preservation and conservation.

Q. It sounds like your own vision of open space, and the importance of it, seemed to be growing also.
A. We grew together.

Bren talked about more big milestones:

*The creation of the 37,000-acre Nature Reserve of Orange County in 1996, with 21,000 acres contributed by the Irvine Co.

*His donation of 11,000 acres of open space in 2001, along with a $50 million stewardship fund to help manage it.

*The creation of the non-profit Irvine Ranch Conservancy in 2005, and the completion that same year of a 22-mile mountains-to-sea trail.

*The designation of the Irvine Ranch as a National Natural Landmark in 2006, and a California Natural Landmark in 2008.

“The last 30 years of this long saga of preservation of the land: we complete this. The final 20,000 acres of land of the 50,000 acres (of ranchland preserved). That’s been dedicated and donated. And that ends 30 years of dedication to the environment, the open space and parklands.

“When I started with this effort, people in the community, people internally, (thought) I was a little strange with my notion of planning parkland, planning open space. It really hadn’t been done before.

“It hasn’t always been easy, either. But I’m pleased that we have reached this conclusion and the land will be for the public, forever, ” he said.

Q. Where did you grow up?
A. In Los Angeles. But Los Angeles in the early days. In west Los Angeles, the Santa Monica mountains were all around. And I had an opportunity to bike through those areas, and camp there, and in those days you could do that. And then the Sierras. I always liked hiking in the Sierras.

Q. Thinking about all the different donations, Irvine regional park, so many other things that really have shaped Orange County. Did you think you were going to have that big an imprint when you started out?
A. No. It’s something that grew. We all grew together, the community, the community leaders, the community groups and the Irvine Co. and the board of directors. Through a lot of discussion, give and take, we’ve come up with a plan that I’m proud of.

Q. In talking about the 20,000 acres, in the environmental community in Orange County, there is a persistent group that thinks the Irvine Co. is up to something: this must be because they want something else. What would you say to them?
A. That’s some type of ghost that perhaps they see out there. We’re not asking for any further major entitlement. We’re not in that process. Now that’s behind us.

Q. That really is about your legacy?
A. Yes that’s right. This is a significant legacy of this company, I think.

Q. The company’s legacy, and yours also?
A. Yes, if you want to say it that way.

Pat Brennan
Orange County Register