Real estate developer started donation commitment in 2013
Orange County’s billionaire real estate developer Donald Bren has donated at least $100 million to a Caltech project that aims to generate solar power in space and beam it back to earth.
The Southern California News Group has learned that in 2013, Bren agreed to a 10-year commitment to Space Solar Power Project at the Pasadena institute. The years-long effort will reach a milestone in the coming months when it launches the first space test of technology that could change how the world creates and distributes electricity.
“I have been a student researching the possible applications of space-based solar energy for many years,” said Bren, chairman and owner of Irvine Co. and a lifetime trustee at Caltech. “My interest in supporting the world-class scientists at Caltech is driven by my belief in harnessing the natural power of the sun for the benefit of everyone.”
Bren, perhaps best known for using pioneering planning skills to help create the city of Irvine 50 years ago, is not just writing checks from his philanthropic foundation. His real estate experiences also taught him that power distribution is often a major cost and headache.
He brought to Caltech an idea that was sparked by a Popular Science magazine piece on power transmission ideas. At the time, Caltech scientists had been working on slices of the technology required for such an endeavor.
A partnership eventually evolved that is unique in several ways. It’s one of the largest donations Caltech has received. But even rarer: Bren has taken no ownership stake in what the project produces — potentially high-value patents on breakthrough science.
“It shows the magnitude of the generosity,” one of the Caltech professors on the project, Ali Hajimiri, said in an interview Friday.
“They really want to change the world and they don’t want anything in return,” Hajimiri said of Bren and his wife, Brigitte, a Caltech board member. “They truly see this as an opportunity to make a difference.”
If this sounds like science fiction, in some ways, it once was.
Legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Reason” describes a space station distributing solar energy to various planets. And various government agencies and private investors have toyed with similar concepts on and off since the 1970s.
Today’s experimentation at Caltech involves complex, game-changing thinking.
For example, it requires accuracy in picoseconds, one trillionth of a second. The novel solar panels being tested are nearly as thin as a sheet of paper. The system must be smart enough to detect any physical intrusion into the earth-bound transmission beam, for safety’s sake. It also must be lightweight and flexible to lower the launch costs. And this won’t be a spaceship, rather imagine a large carpet of solar panels.
You don’t need a physics Ph.D. to see the giant potential of turning electricity into something similar to cell service. Science has brought wireless telephone and data service to much of the globe with ever-increasing speed and clarity. And in space, the sun is available to create power all day, every day, free from weather constraints.
The project’s first test will launch a combination power generator and transmitter measuring roughly 6 feet by 6 feet. Taking the concept into space will be by Silicon Valley start-up Momentus.
Hajimiri says there are three goals: deploy the tech in space; gather energy using the panels; transmit that electricity through space.
That’s only a first step. The next one involves the prospect of taking the concept into real-world use, something that could be long as six years away, he says.
Yes, it’s another billionaire tied to space technology. But this isn’t anything like the hyped battle among three others billionaires — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Tesla/Space X’s Elon Musk — to create vehicles that will enable a space tourism industry.
For now, those are largely products for the rich. Bren’s solar project seeks to create a global supply of affordable and clean power.
“Donald Bren has brought the same drive and discipline that he has demonstrated with master planning communities to the Space Solar Program,” Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum said in a statement. “He has presented a remarkable technical challenge that promises a remarkable payoff for humanity: a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy.”
The project’s genesis came a decade ago when Bren had a conversation about space power with Caltech’s then-president Jean-Lou Chameau.
Soon a faculty group started discussing the possibilities of what seemed far-fetched at the time. Eventually, Caltech presented Bren with a proposal. In 2013, the school started the work, and Bren began his donations, which Caltech says now exceed $100 million.
“We came up with a dream,” says Sergio Pellegrino, another Caltech professor on the project. “We needed to rethink everything.”
The once-secret, 10-year commitment has helped the project over many hurdles. Pellegrino compares it to shorter-term thinking involved in a $17.5 million, three-year grant Caltech got from defense contractor Northrop Grumman in 2015 to work on space power technologies.
“It allows us to think ahead,” Pellegrino says. “Without that, it couldn’t get done.”
For starters, Bren’s contributions allow professors to hire students to work on the plan with a five-year commitment, ideal for doctoral candidates.
Also, when a necessary part can’t be found, Caltech can make it themselves. That often takes time when they’re creating never-been-tried-before gadgets.
Bren and his wife meet with Caltech researchers at least once a year. Pellegrino says the 89-year-old businessman brings a far different perspective to the project than what typically exists within the Caltech campus.
For example, Bren suggested the project use Southern California suppliers as much as possible in order to make a regional hub for space-centric power. That was a shift from the typical global sourcing approach.
“He had a regional dimension to his thinking I was not thinking about,” Pellegrino says.
Bren is no stranger to environmentally-friendly efforts.
His team often notes how green the city of Irvine is — literally and figuratively. Bren owns more environmentally friendly “LEED-certified” office buildings — 70 — than anyone else in California.
But it’s also about what Bren hasn’t built. In Orange County, Bren has given away 57,500 acres of the Irvine Ranch land for parks and preserves and has funded endowments to maintain those lands.
Yes, some of those land deals were part of trades for construction approvals. But at today’s land prices of roughly $7 million an acre for ready-to-build lots, his contribution adds up to $35 billion.
His other educational donations include giving UC Santa Barbara $20 million to fund the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. The program that started in 1997 was the first U.S. university to focus graduate studies on issues such as sustainability and conservation.
This Caltech gift is a tad grander and potentially far more global. And the gee-whiz thought of power coming from space isn’t the only possible breakthrough application.
Wireless power transmission on Earth could revolutionize everything from the safety and aesthetics of overhead power lines to how power is supplied in emergency situations to the creation of more environmentally friendly solar panels and even how we refuel an electric car.
Professor Hajimiri notes that “technology finds its own path” through the commercialization of its potential to the ultimate consumer.
Consider looking at how wireless information technology moved computing and storage from your device to the Internet’s vast cloud.
“Just imagine if power was as ubiquitous as WiFi or cellular.”
How Irvine was master-planned to be one of America’s most livable cities.
Everything was coming up green in the spring of 1970. In April, Americans would celebrate the first Earth Day, marking the dawn of the global environmental movement. In Washington, the White House was finalizing plans for a new Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air Act. General Motors had just promised “pollution-free cars” by 1980. And 50 miles south of Los Angeles, Irvine Company executives were unfurling plans for a brand-new, green city.
The City of Irvine was rigorously designed to be the heart of an environment “where nature and man both prosper,” as the Company announced in an enthusiastic press release on March 19, 1970. The blueprint delivered that day to Orange County planners included an unusual promise: 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.”
This was a striking commitment even in the context of that era’s green ambitions. Yet it arose from a singular set of circumstances. A single corporation held claim to 93,000 acres of undeveloped land – six times the size of Manhattan – and had determined to maintain control of it, master-planning its development.
Irvine was neither the first nor the largest modern city to be designed from the ground up. More than two centuries earlier, Washington, D.C., was planned by the French former revolutionary fighter Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Brasilia, Brazil’s brand-new, master-planned capital, was inaugurated in 1960.
And in 1964, while Irvine was still on the drawing board, the small, woodsy town of Reston, Virginia, planned by a New York developer, would become known as a pioneering effort to avoid the miseries of suburban sprawl.
Still, Irvine was special in one major way. Its fortune in having a single owner for the city’s land and its natural surroundings would pave the way for a long-lasting and mutually rewarding collaboration between a private company and local City Council members.
On Dec. 28, 1971, Irvine’s 10,000 inhabitants embraced their good luck, overwhelmingly voting to incorporate as a new city.
The Founding Father
Irvine is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But the city’s unique history began more than 100 years earlier.
In 1846, James Irvine, then an impoverished 19-year-old immigrant, arrived in New York, fleeing the Irish potato famine. After making his way to San Francisco, he sold food and provisions to gold rush miners and made his fortune by investing in real estate. At age 37, Irvine headed to Southern California, where he discovered what he called the “most delightful” land he had ever seen, in or out of the state. The Irvine Company dates its start from 1864, when Irvine and two partners, whom he later bought out, began acquiring vast tracts of former Spanish and Mexican land grants. These would include the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch, today just an hour’s drive south of downtown Los Angeles.
Priceless, Pristine Land
Thanks to a long line of conscientious stewards, much of the land that first enchanted James Irvine more than 150 years ago still looks a lot like it did then. Descendants of the eagles, hawks, mountain lions, badgers and scores of species of butterflies that Irvine saw on his first horseback forays still make the Ranch their home.
The Ranch stretches for 9 miles along the Pacific Coast and 22 miles inland to the Cleveland National Forest. Its landscapes are as varied as they are often visually stunning, ranging from remote canyons and mountain watersheds to grasslands, oak woodlands, coves and beaches. Its ecological treasures include one of Southern California’s largest coastal freshwater marshes and the 5,500-acre Limestone Canyon, home to a striking geological formation called the “Sinks,” sometimes compared to a miniature Grand Canyon.
The Ranch belongs to one of the world’s few regions with a Mediterranean climate of mild winters and warm summers. Scientists have distinguished the area as one of 36 biodiversity “hot spots” due to its wealth of rare and vulnerable plant and animal species. The list of flora and fauna endemic to this corner of the continent includes Tecate cypress trees, the Nutall’s woodpecker and the endangered California gnatcatcher, a songbird that lives in coastal sage scrub.
The Ranch property encompasses roughly one-fifth of modern Orange County, home to more than 3 million people and many more millions of yearly visitors, drawn by attractions including Disneyland and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. The Irvine Company initially used the land to raise cattle and sheep but later expanded into agriculture. By 1910, the Ranch was the most productive agricultural location in California, expanding into crops, including oranges, cauliflower and grapes.
Still, the land had a much more unusual destiny in store.
A Struggle to Stop Smog and Sprawl
By the 1950s, the outside world was starting to intrude on James Irvine’s paradise. Marines and other members of the military from all over the country who had been trained or stationed in Southern California during World War II had fallen in love with the climate and scenery and brought their families west to start new lives. A frenzy of freeway building made it easier for those with jobs in Los Angeles to commute to homes near forests and fresh air. But now, in many parts of the region, smog and traffic had reached appalling levels. From 1950 to 1987, Orange County’s population multiplied tenfold, from roughly 200,000 to more than 2 million. Urban sprawl from the north and west was approaching like “oozing molasses,” in the words of one Irvine Company executive.
The rapidly growing population put pressure on the Company to subdivide and sell off its properties. Surrounding cities, including Newport Beach and Santa Ana, sought to annex some of the land. The Company resisted, seeking an alternative solution. It found one in 1959, thanks to an already-celebrated architect named William Pereira. University of California regents had hired Pereira to find a site for a new campus. He took them on a tour of 23 sites, ending with the one he liked best: The Irvine Ranch. Pereira already had a larger plan in mind. He envisioned a 1,000-acre university within a “city of intellect,” free from “the tragedies of helter-skelter planning, of the impossible traffic, the sprawling disorganization” he had seen all over California. He proposed creating a series of master-planned villages where resident families would be able to walk to schools and shopping, leaving their cars in their garages.
Architecture critic Alan Hess, who was such a fan of Irvine’s Master Plan that he made his home here in 2004, would call it the “largest, most successful application of important progressive planning ideas since 1900.”
The Irvine Company embraced Pereira’s concept, and in September 1960 transferred title to 1,000 acres to the UC system for a symbolic fee of $1, a gesture required by the terms of the Company’s charter. The land sale marked a fundamental change for the Company, requiring it to be “proactive rather than reactive in the Ranch’s transformation from its agricultural past to its urban future,” as one executive expressed it. In the process, the Company assumed a new long-term role as “Master Community Builder.”
Three years later, as the bulldozers, graders and carpenters went to work, Time magazine put Pereira’s portrait on its cover, a distinction shared that year by the likes of Muhammad Ali and Robert Kennedy. The magazine praised Pereira for his “early environmental awareness.” The architect understood that the new city had to be a financial success, but also hoped it would serve as a model for a more civilized lifestyle, with more respect for nature than U.S. suburbs had yet produced.
A Blueprint for a Green Utopia
Irvine Company planners shared Pereira’s hope of combatting what one of them called “a crisis of the spirit” in American suburbs.
“In the smaller towns, monotony is king. In the larger cities, the scattering of major community facilities has created an urban sprawl with which it is impossible for any man to identify,” the 1970 press release said.
The new city would be “totally master-planned,” from its roads to its utilities to its homes, factories and schools, anticipating needs more than 30 years in the future. Its hub would be the campus of the new University of California, Irvine, with spokes extending into the surrounding residential area. Irvine’s most distinctive characteristic would be self-contained residential “villages” linked by forested corridors. This would greatly reduce dependence on cars, as Pereira envisioned, because within a 10-minute walk along a greenbelt, residents could reach destinations including an elementary school, playground, recreation center and community pools. At maximum, they would walk 15 minutes to reach a shopping center with a market, restaurants, hardware store, banks and barbershop.
Architecture critic Alan Hess, who was such a fan of Irvine’s Master Plan that he made his home here in 2004, would call it the “largest, most successful application of important progressive planning ideas since 1900.” Many other future residents just liked what they saw: a distinctively family-friendly and environmentally smart city. In September 1976, more than 7,000 prospective buyers competed in a lottery for the first 221 homes for sale in the new village of Woodbridge.
A Deeper Shade of Green
The next four decades would bring more transformational change for both the Irvine Company and The Irvine Ranch. Under the guidance of Donald Bren, elected Chairman of the Board in 1983 and who later became the majority owner, the Company donated more than half of its original land holdings – nearly 60,000 acres – for permanent conservation.
An avid outdoorsman, Bren values the Ranch both for its beauty and recreational opportunities for Irvine residents and for its scientific importance – including the opportunity to leave entire habitats intact.
“For many years, I have walked, hiked, biked and ridden the trails and wilderness lands of this Ranch,” he says. “They are very close to my heart, my home, and they represent freedom for everyone, as well as for the natural species that have made their home here for centuries.”
Bren has repeatedly said that he wants the Ranch to “be known and celebrated as much for what is NOT developed here,” and has pursued that goal with a series of major decisions that would protect large, intact ecosystems.
The first big grant came in July 1996, when the Irvine Company contributed 21,000 acres to a new 37,000-acre land preserve. The plan relied on a previously untested California state law, the Natural Community Conservation Planning Act, designed to protect species by safeguarding large parts of their habitats. The preserve would not only protect 39 rare plant and animal species but would guarantee Irvine and Orange County residents easy access to enjoy the wilderness, even while living in one of the great metropolitan areas of the United States.
Eventually, more than 40 other California cities would follow this lead, using the NCCP Act to set aside 1.5 million acres as nature reserves, with pending applications to preserve millions of acres more.
In 2001, the Company donated another 11,000 acres of undeveloped land, including an important wildlife corridor, for permanent protection. Then in 2010, a final gift of 20,000 acres was transferred to Orange County – and permanent public ownership – bringing the total to more than 57,500 acres, or nearly 60% of James Irvine’s original holdings.
State and federal officials applauded these developments.
In 2006, The Irvine Ranch was designated a United States National Natural Landmark, and two years later the ranchland was recognized as a California State Natural Landmark.
Still, Irvine Company leaders felt obliged to do more than simply hand over property. They also wanted to help guarantee that the land would remain unspoiled, even as Irvine residents would have use of it.
“Urban planners from all over the world have come to study, and often to try to copy, Irvine’s success. What I see increasingly are places like Irvine, but none are quite as evolved.” –Sustainability Expert Joel Kotkin
That’s what led to the creation in 2005 of the nonprofit Irvine Ranch Conservancy, supported with a $50 million contribution from the Donald Bren Foundation.
Before launching the new conservancy, the Irvine Company took care to study similar, successful ventures, including the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Catalina Island Conservancy. It also recruited board members from those organizations and hired as its founding executive director Michael O’Connell, a veteran conservation scientist who had held senior positions with the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. The new conservancy was tasked with using the best scientific practices to make the preserve a model of excellent private-public management of urban wilderness, balancing conservation with opportunities for recreation. O’Connell quickly got to work, orchestrating the removal of invasive plants, the restoration of wetlands and the creation of hundreds of miles of trails, including a new 22-mile bike path from the mountains to the sea.
Board Chairman Bren has referred to Irvine’s gifts of open space as “an investment in the future.” The value of the assets involved remain uncalculated in financial terms, but it’s fair to say it’s growing every day.
In 1981, Stanford biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich introduced the term “ecosystem services” to refer to the often-unrecognized economic benefits of pristine nature. Forests, for instance, perform valuable work by cleaning the air; mangrove trees protect homes from storms; and undeveloped land of all kinds provides opportunities for people to restore themselves by enjoying nature. As the world’s supply of undeveloped land rapidly shrinks, environmentalists and economists are still struggling to come up with ways to monetize trees that aren’t made into timber and wetlands that help prevent flooding as long as they stay undeveloped.
One day these “services” may finally be recognized as bulwarks of our economy. O’Connell, the conservancy executive director, sees this value daily. “I can’t even begin to guess what the value of this property is. But in terms of its biological and geologic value, it is truly priceless. It’s like having a national park in our backyard,” O’Connell told the Los Angeles Times.
A Bright and Sustainable Future
As Irvine turns 50, many of its early ambitious dreams have come true. The campus at the heart of the “city of intellect” has become a world-class research center and has been ranked a top 10 public university by U.S. News & World Report.
Irvine’s K-12 public schools are among the best in the nation, winning both the National Blue Ribbon award and the California Distinguished Schools/Gold Ribbon designation.
The City of Irvine has also built a national reputation for environmental leadership. In 1989, it was the first in the nation to restrict the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. Among U.S. cities, Irvine also has one of the highest percentages of solar-powered homes and has attracted some of the nation’s leading engineers developing electric-vehicle batteries and engines. The Irvine Company itself continues to be an environmental innovator: In 2018, it completed the world’s first fleet of hybrid-electric buildings, featuring state-of-the-art Tesla Powerpack battery systems at 21 high-rise office buildings.
Thanks, in good measure, to its exceptional Master Plan and deep-green sensibility, Irvine has achieved a balanced climate, in which residents benefit from accessible and enjoyable open space, clean water and spacious parks.
“You think of what makes a city green and sustainable – it’s creating a community that residents can enjoy today while ensuring that future residents will be able to enjoy it even more so.” –Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan
Irvine has retained its special character of villages accessible by roads, walkways and bike-paths, and homes designed to take maximum advantage of views of the surrounding, conserved nature. It’s just part of what has distinguished the city, by many accounts, as one of America’s best places to live. Irvine’s population remains unusually manageable at below 290,000, much smaller than the Plan’s target of 430,000 residents by the year 2001. CNNMoney.com has ranked Irvine among America’s top cities to live in, while the federal government has repeatedly reported it to have the lowest per-capita rate of violent crime of any other city of its size.
Urban planners from all over the world have come to study, and often to try to copy, Irvine’s success, according to sustainability expert Joel Kotkin, Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University. “What I see increasingly are places like Irvine, but none are quite as evolved,” Kotkin said.
Irvine’s coveted status as one of America’s greenest cities continues to be its greatest gift to residents. It’s truly a small miracle, owing to 50 years of careful planning and ambitious environmental stewardship, that nearly 300,000 Irvine residents living in one of the most populated corners of the United States still need travel less than 20 minutes to enjoy a majestic national park.
“I couldn’t be prouder of all that the City of Irvine has accomplished over the last 50 years, and I am even more excited about what’s to come in the next 50 years,” said Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan. “You think of what makes a city green and sustainable – it’s creating a community that residents can enjoy today while ensuring that future residents will be able to enjoy it even more so. It’s creating a legacy that will endure for generations to come.”
The 10-year grant allows for continuation of esteemed program that provides art, music and science specialists for every 4th through 6th grade class in IUSD.
IRVINE, Calif. (Sept. 26, 2016) — Irvine Company announced today a $20-million gift to the Irvine Unified School District that will allow for the continuation of an esteemed enrichment program that provides art, music and science teachers to every fourth through sixth grade class in the district.
The 10-year grant funds another decade of the popular Excellence in Education Enrichment Program that began in 2006 with a similar 10-year, $20 million commitment from Irvine Company. The initial gift nearly tripled the amount of funding allocated toward enrichment programs in the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD).
The renewal ensures that Irvine public schools will continue to offer the finest, most comprehensive and professionally driven enrichment curriculum for fourth through sixth graders of any district in the state. The grant helps to fund more than 30 teachers at 24 elementary schools for the next decade.
“Irvine Company is pleased to continue its long-term commitment to Irvine Unified School District and the holistic education of its students,” said Robin Leftwich, Irvine Company’s vice president of community affairs. “Enrichment is an integral part of exemplary student achievement and high standardized test scores, elevating Irvine Unified above every other district in the state.”
Since the program’s inception in 2006, IUSD high school students have significantly outperformed their peers in California and the nation in science and visual and performing arts.
“This gift from Irvine Company allows us to continue an enrichment program that distinguishes Irvine schools nationally,” Superintendent Terry Walker said. “This is vital, especially during the shift to Common Core and new science standards requiring substantially more hands-on instruction.”
Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren and the Donald Bren Foundation have a long history of passionate support for education in Irvine. More than $220 million has been invested to support students, teachers, principals, schools, school districts, universities and university scholars on The Irvine Ranch. Irvine is recognized for having the most successful school district in California due in large part to Irvine Company’s philanthropy, public policy initiatives and master-planning.
Irvine Company Completes Open Space Master Plan with Gift of Additional 2,500 Acres, Brings Preserved Irvine Ranch Lands to 55,000 Acres
Gift Culminates 50 Years of Open Space Master Planning
Nearly 60% of Historic 93,000-Acre Irvine Ranch Preserved
Lands Connect to 22-Mile Mountains to Sea Trail
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif., Aug. 12, 2014 — Culminating more than 50 years of open space master planning on the historic Irvine Ranch, the Irvine Company today announced a major land gift of 2,500 acres near Orange and Anaheim Hills now approved for 5,500 homes that instead will be donated as open space.
The gift builds on previous donations to create one of the largest urban land preserves in the nation, stretching from the coastal mountains to the sea. In all, the lands that will be gifted bring the grand total of parklands and open space donated by the Irvine Company to nearly 55,000 acres, or approximately 60% of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch.
The gift comes as the Irvine Company celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2014. The Irvine Company has long treasured land as a precious resource to be used for the benefit of the public. In 1897, the founding Irvine family donated more than 300 acres to the people of Orange County for what today is Irvine Regional Park.
“As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Irvine Company, this is a perfect opportunity to add to our open space and parklands legacy,” Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren said. “With this gift, we complete our open space vision.”
“The lands represented by this new gift are last pieces of a spectacular open space puzzle that has been assembled on The Irvine Ranch,” said Michael O’Connell, executive director of the nonprofit Irvine Ranch Conservancy, which works with the County of Orange to manage natural lands while providing public volunteer and recreational opportunities. “Preserving these areas protects the balance of stewardship and recreation that ensures the long-term health of this tremendous natural resource.”
In recognition of the biological and geological significance of the open spaces of The Irvine Ranch, thousands of acres of preserved lands were designated as a National Natural Landmark in 2006 and as a California Natural Landmark in 2008.
Enjoyed by Millions
Prized for their beauty and public accessibility, the preserved lands of The Irvine Ranch are visited by more than 2 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. The lands’ trails, parks and open spaces are enjoyed for hiking, biking, running, riding horseback, camping, picnicking at Irvine Regional Park or connecting with nature on guided tours of the diverse geography and unique habits.
The northern and southern open spaces of The Irvine Ranch are linked by the Mountains to Sea Trail, which stretches 22 miles from oak-filled Weir Canyon to Upper Newport Bay. The Mountains to Sea Trail makes exploring the diverse open spaces of The Irvine Ranch easy and accessible.
The newly gifted lands span an area equal to the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park combined. In Anaheim Hills, the donation covers 1,100 acres bordered to the north by the Riverside (91) Freeway, alongside the Eastern (241) Toll Road and adjacent to previously preserved open spaces including Gypsum and Weir canyons, which were donated by the Irvine Company to the County of Orange in 2010. In East Orange, the land includes 1,400 acres east of the 241 and alongside the southeastern shore of Irvine Lake, next to open space given by the Irvine Company to the County of Orange in 2010.
“Part of the great quality of life we enjoy here in Orange County stems from those who had the foresight to value open space as much as development,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the Third District where the land is located. “I want to thank the Irvine Company for foregoing their development approvals and providing this land gift for the public’s access and enjoyment.”
Adding to Canyons, Irvine Regional Park
The land gift will combine to create a contiguous area of canyon open space on the northern reaches of The Irvine Ranch, joining with Weir Canyon, Fremont Canyon, Black Star Canyon Limestone Canyon, Irvine Lake, and Irvine Regional Park, which will see an additional 16 acres of added parklands with the donation.
The 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch stretches nine miles along the Pacific coast, 22 miles inland and encompasses more than one-fifth of Orange County’s total 798 square miles. Within its boundaries lie the city of Irvine and parts of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Tustin, Orange and Anaheim, plus unincorporated county land and portions of Santa Ana and Costa Mesa.
The Irvine Ranch is considered one of the largest and most successful master-planned communities in the United States with award-winning residential villages, nationally recognized schools and public safety and abundant parks, trails and open space. For more, visit Forever, a website dedicated to the open spaces of the Irvine Ranch.
Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren signed over 20,000 acres of rugged, dramatic landscape to OC Parks on Tuesday amid windblown grasses and hulking oaks.
“That was painless,” he said after signing a ceremonial deed created for the occasion, while Orange County supervisors, Irvine city officials, park rangers, naturalists and open-space advocates looked on.
Then, before turning away from both the microphone and his role as landowner for some of the county’s most untrammeled wild spaces, Bren, 78, shook the hand of OC Parks director Mark Denny.
“It’s all yours,” he said.
“Yours,” in this case, means all of Orange County. The four major canyons that make up the gift include Black Star, expected to become the 2,000-acre “Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park” within three to four years.
It is the largest gift of land in county history.
Orange County supervisors accepted the 20,000 acres in June, though Bren’s proposal had been announced the year before – and anticipated for 20 years. It increased OC Parks’ landholdings by 50 percent in a single stroke, and caps Irvine Co. land donations over the past century that amount to more than half of the historic Irvine Ranch that stretched across the county’s midsection.
Public access to what was once the domain of cattle and cowboys will gradually increase in coming years.
Hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders already have free access once a month to the Limestone Canyon section, spanning more than 5,000 acres adjacent to Whiting Ranch and home to “The Sinks” – a “breathtaking geological formation” that is “one of the wonders of Orange County, and should be seen by all,” Orange County supervisor Bill Campbell told the group.
And there are other programs and outings on the property led by docents.
Bren’s gift also includes Fremont Canyon, full of poppies in spring, Weir Canyon, full of oak woodlands and mule deer, and Loma Ridge, from which the ocean and downtown Los Angeles were visible Tuesday, with skies blown clear by wind.
Mountain lions frequent the property, raptors hunt rodents in the scrub, owls hoot at night.
“It’s almost like having an entire national park, as a centerpiece, located right here in the middle of Orange County,” Bren told the group. “What’s more, it’s the largest urban open space in the United States. In fact, more than 30 million people live less than 30 minutes from this pristine natural treasure.”
Much of the land is protected under Orange County’s Natural Communities Conservation Plan, an umbrella of land management meant to preserve suitable habitat for a variety of native species.
So OC Parks must balance public access with habitat protection – perhaps keeping some sections closed even as more of the land is opened to the public in the years to come.
For the next three years, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, created by the Irvine Co. to manage wild lands, will continue conducting research, education and restoration on the property.
Environmental groups, including some that questioned the land transfer and the county’s ability to manage and fund it, studied the proposal carefully before lending their support.
The man who built much of Orange County is shifting gears.
Donald Bren, the 78-year-old chairman of the Irvine Co., is spending as much time on philanthropy these days as he is on his business.
What that might mean for the future of his company, or the county, remains to be seen.
What is known is that Bren’s philanthropy has left a mark that rivals the work he’s done building out about one-fifth of Orange County. From the Bren supported Law School at UC Irvine to a 20,000-acre parcel of the original Irvine Ranch that, in June, was transferred to the county as permanent open space, Bren’s charitable projects have been aimed at making a long-term impact.
It’s true that Bren is wealthy even in a world of mega-wealth. His fortune, pegged at about $12 billion, was ranked the 45th biggest in the world this year by Forbes magazine.
It’s also true that the total of Bren’s philanthropy has been staggering. This month, when he was given the first “Donald Bren Legacy of Giving Award” – a permanent award created by the investment group that backs National Philanthropy Day in Orange County – the group listed Bren’s total charity, so far, at $1.3 billion and some 93,000 acres of land.
Bren agreed to chat about philanthropy (other topics weren’t on the table) via e-mail.
Q. If, 100 years from now, somebody reads your name in a book, do you hope you’re connected to the city of Irvine, Crystal Cove State Park or something else?
A. It has all been important to me.
My focus has been on the master planning and master building of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch. The land is quite complex, and each area or quadrant requires individual care. It has been my vision through careful planning to create an unparalleled community, where residents enjoy an ease of living and where families have access to the best schools for their children.
My hope is that we at the Irvine Co. are remembered for creating a community in balance with its surroundings and for taking equal care in all aspects of planning related to the Irvine Ranch.
Q. At this stage of your life, what’s more important to you, work or philanthropy?
A. At this stage of my life, both work and philanthropy have equal priority.
Q. You said the other day that philanthropy is a way to build partnerships. Can you explain what you mean by that?
A. Community partnerships create philanthropy. For our community to continue to be a place where people “choose” to live, we need strong community partnerships between businesses, governments and nonprofits to sustain the quality of life that we have come to enjoy in Orange County. For me, philanthropy has always been about simply creating new community partnerships, partnerships that will be valued forever.
Perhaps the best example is our ongoing partnership with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, as well as county government and the Nature Conservancy, working together for the preservation of 50,000 acres of open space, representing more than half of the original Irvine Ranch.
Q. Some of your gifts have touched areas that don’t seem to have much to do with your core businesses. Can you fill in some detail about why you give the way you do?
A. Rather than limiting my contributions to a singular geography, I have tried to focus on certain areas of need – education, for example. I believe that by doing so, we can collectively have the greatest impact.
I believe the greatest investment we can make is in the education of our children, wherever they live. Using THINK Together as an example, I saw a need off the Irvine Ranch, in Santa Ana, to help improve the quality of education in local public schools. Through my partnership with THINK Together, we have been able to serve some 70,000 at-risk and low-income students, raise test scores and improve the overall quality of life for children throughout Southern California.
Q. Your developments and reputation indicate that you see minute detail as critical to the success of any venture. Do you take the same mindset when involved in philanthropy? Do your nonprofit projects take on a life similar to business projects?
A. I consider myself lucky because I have been able to transfer many of my business experiences and much of my own time toward creating nonprofit community investments. And I do try to bring the same level of attention to both my philanthropic and business ventures.
Q. How does one measure the success of a gift?
A. We use the same philosophy for our nonprofit investments as we do for our real estate investments. First, we ask that the nonprofits we support to have goals and to be able to measure their results. We also look for strong leadership, with a passion in their mission. And our nonprofit partners have done a fantastic job due to this shared philosophy and focus.
Q. Is giving an intellectual challenge? Does it engage your head or your heart? Does it have to reach both?
Q. Obviously, some causes are particularly important to you…. Do you foresee your interests changing over time?
A. My two primary areas of focus have been openspace conservation and education, and I expect those to remain my priorities in the future.
The Irvine open space and parklands provide serenity and balance to our unique Orange County lifestyle. When I first joined the Irvine Co., I realized that less than 11,000 acres were designated as open space in the original master plan, and that just didn’t seem adequate to me. So, I began the lengthy process working with public and community organizations to add more open space.
Working together with the Nature Conservancy and local governments, we were able to expand the original 11,000 acres to encompass more than 50,000 acres of land that is now permanently protected and preserved forever. I believe it is truly a national treasure, and one that I’m proud to say we created together.
Q. Have you got a favorite project?
A. I tend to be more focused on the cumulative impact of our collective efforts, rather than on any one individual project. For example, one park is not more important than the others, but rather the fact that we have dedicated more than 50,000 acres of open space on the Irvine Ranch is what I find most satisfying.
Q. Is giving money away as fun as making it?
A. I get great satisfaction from both business and philanthropy.
Most of the remaining Irvine Ranch became California’s first Natural Landmark on Tuesday, a new designation announced by the governor during an Earth Day celebration amid the ranch’s rolling, brush-covered hills.
“This is wonderful and I can guarantee you, this is something that would not happen anywhere else,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told the group of students, scientists, land managers and wildlife agency officials.
The nearly 40,000-acre designation, he said, is “right here in the middle of one of the nation’s most vibrant and economically important urban areas.”
The state landmark status, dreamed up by Assemblyman George A. Plescia, R-San Diego, after a similar expanse of the ranch was declared a National Natural Landmark in 2006, is meant to recognize the state’s most spectacular habitat and geology – and encourage other landowners to preserve wild land.
Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren told the group that 50,000 acres, more than half of the historic Irvine Ranch, has been set aside for preservation.
“One of my dreams has been for the Irvine Ranch to be known and celebrated for what’s been preserved and protected here, as well as for its outstanding communities that have been created here,” Bren told the group.
Under the state’s criteria, which target biological richness and unusual geologic formations, about 39,000 acres qualified for landmark status.
The ranch is home to scrubland, oak woodlands and streamside corridors lined with massive sycamores. A variety of rare and endangered species inhabit the ranch land, managed by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.
Some of the land, though once owned by the Irvine Co., is now owned by a variety of agencies, including Orange County, Irvine, Laguna Beach and state parks.
It is wonderful to be here today and I want to thank Donald Bren for inviting me to come here today, especially to be here today on Earth Day. Earth Day is a very special day. What makes this day special is because all of a sudden the spotlight goes on that issue of the environment. And not just in this state or in this country, but I checked it out last night at 12 o’clock, at midnight. I wanted to know how many countries are really celebrating Earth Day — it’s 185 countries around the globe.
So it just shows you, the whole world is celebrating this special day and putting the spotlight on that issue of fighting global warming, cleaning up our environment, cleaning our water, our air and conservation — if it is conservation of energy and water and all of those kinds of issues. And children are learning how they can participate, so I think it is really terrific. And it gives us also an opportunity here to shine the spotlight on the great accomplishments and the great achievements that we have made here in California.
So today I’m very proud to announce the first-ever California natural landmark here at Irvine Ranch. This is wonderful news and I can guarantee you, this is something that would not happen anywhere else. Only in California can you see a 40,000 acre — now, when I walked up this road here and through the flowers, Donald corrected me and said, “It’s 50,000 acres; don’t say 40.” So I want you to know, you will hear these various different numbers; but I stick with what Donald says since it’s his place. (Laughter) So, it’s 50,000 acres of natural landmark right here in the middle of one of the nation’s most vibrant and economically important urban areas.
Now, it is the latest, I would say, accomplishment in the Irvine Company’s proud history of preserving land for future generations. Today’s action just shows what can be accomplished when individuals that are visionaries, that are generous and that are passionate and all levels of government cooperate and work together. This is exactly why Earth Day is so very special here in California. Our level of commitment, of course, for preservation and innovation is unmatched.
And when I think back just to 2003 when I talked about that we can preserve both the economy and the environment, there were people that didn’t believe that we can do that. But I think we have proven to them that we can do it, because in these last four years alone California has accomplished a lot.
We have put aside 25 million acres of pristine land for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. We passed the Ocean Action Plan, the Marine Life Protection Act, the Million Solar Roof Initiative, the Green Building Initiative to make our government buildings more energy efficient by the year 2015. And, of course, our historic law, AB 32, to make a commitment to roll back our greenhouse gases to the 1990 level by the year 2020 and then an additional 80 percent by the year 2050. And then a year later we created the world’s first Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
But as we all know, the reality is that Earth Day is not just about what we have accomplished and what we are accomplishing right now, but it’s also about the future. And big things are happening that will make that future brighter for all of us. Last Friday, for instance, I spoke at the Governors Conference on Climate Change at Yale University.
This event was inspired by the 100th anniversary of a historic meeting called by President Teddy Roosevelt that gave birth to the modern conservation movement. The president was alarmed then already at the country’s rapid and reckless depletion of natural resources, so he summoned a group of governors to the White House. The meeting also led to the creation of our national parks system.
At Yale I joined 17 other states in signing a declaration calling on the next president and the next Congress to make the environment and climate change the top of their priorities. But it’s not just states that are taking action. There’s great action all over the country; more than 700 U.S. mayors have joined together in a climate protection agreement and 32 of the largest and most influential companies in America and environmental groups have formed an alliance to call for greenhouse gas reductions and oil companies are now pouring billions and billions of dollars into renewable energy.
And a big boost of course will be coming after the election, no matter whether it’s McCain, Obama, or Clinton. They all are good when it comes to the environment. The environmental movement is sweeping the nation from Main Street to Wall Street and I know for sure it will make its way to Pennsylvania Avenue.
So, our work is paying off and I’m confident that our momentum will grow stronger and stronger with every passing day because we are more committed than ever before. So thank you very much and now let’s create some action with California’s new natural landmark. Thank you very much. Thank you.
Six-story campus hall named for Irvine Co. chairman will house information and computer science programs.
UC IRVINE — Donald Bren was already in celebration mode when he visited campus Wednesday for the dedication of a new building in his name. The night before, the Irvine Co. chairman had stayed up late watching UCI’s baseball team defeat Arizona State University, and he told the crowd that cheering the team on had resulted in his hoarse voice.
“I don’t usually sound like ‘The Godfather,’ ” he said, moments before donning a UCI baseball cap and shouting, “Go ‘Eaters!”
With UCI still reeling from Tuesday’s come-from-behind victory, the campus celebrated another milestone Wednesday morning, as administrators and guests gathered to officially dedicate Donald Bren Hall. The six-story building, which broke ground almost exactly three years ago, provides a new home to UCI’s information and computer science programs.
At 11:30 a.m., Bren, Chancellor Michael Drake and others gathered inside the new building for opening remarks.
Debra Richardson, the dean of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, said the state-of-the-art structure would help UCI attract top faculty from around the world. The information and computer science department — better known as ICS — launched at UCI in 1968.
“ICS has been a success story for the last 39 years,” Richardson said. “Next year, we’ll mark our 40th year. Today, I venture to say that we’ve only just begun.”
After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the building opened for tours. The Bren Hall, which covers more than 90,000 square feet, includes research labs, faculty offices, classrooms and more. Bren, who wielded a shovel at the groundbreaking in 2004, said he marveled — as always — at watching a building evolve from scratch.
“As most of you know, at my core, I’m a community builder,” he said. “It’s been my lifelong passion.”
Donald Bren Elected Fellow of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
TIC Chairman Donald Bren has been elected a Fellow of the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences — a major recognition of his long history of philanthropic contributions to education and open space preservation and access.
Fellows are elected from throughout the world through a highly competitive process, and are chosen for their significant and lasting contributions to their disciplines and society. Mr. Bren was elected in the category of Business, Corporate and Philanthropic Leadership –- Private Sector.
Founded in 1780, the Academy is one of the oldest learned societies in the country and is unique in its breadth and scope. Throughout its history, it has gathered individuals with diverse interests and perspectives to participate in meetings, studies and projects focusing on critical social and scholarly issues.
Considered one of America’s most generous philanthropists, Mr. Bren through the years has contributed, through The Irvine Company and the Donald Bren Foundation, more than $200 million to public schools on The Irvine Ranch and to institutions of higher education. His gifts range from major contributions to local K-12 schools for enrichment programs, after-school programs for low-income children, and scholarship awards, to funding more than 50 endowed chairs for distinguished faculty at institutions for higher learning. At the University of California, Mr. Bren has contributed more to support endowed chairs than any other single donor in UC’s history.
UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara, in particular, have benefited from Mr. Bren’s generosity.
In a news release, UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang congratulated Mr. Bren and noted “his extraordinary achievements, leadership, philanthropy, and vision in the arts and sciences.” UCSB is home to the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.
A strong conservationist, Mr. Bren for many years has been at the forefront of efforts to preserve environmentally sensitive land in Southern California, a commitment that was recognized in 2006 with the designation of The Irvine Ranch’s protected parks and open spaces as a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. He has committed $50 million for the long-term management, preservation and restoration of the natural resources on the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve®, now being carried out by the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve Trust, which Mr. Bren created. Its mission also is to increase public access to the lands.
In 2006, BusinessWeek magazine ranked Mr. Bren 8th on its annual list of “The 50 Most Generous Philanthropists” in the country.
Mr. Bren was elected a Fellow alongside some of the world’s most eminent scientists, scholars, artists, civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders, including recipients of the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel and Academy Awards. The newly elected Fellows also include UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake.
Irvine Ranch acreage gets landmark status The governor is among those at a ceremony to announce the national designation, shared by Diamond Head and the La Brea Tar Pits.
Los Angeles Times
October 11, 2006
A 37,000-acre swath of Orange County that stretches from the ocean to the foothills — property that once was part of historic Irvine Ranch — was designated Tuesday a national landmark.
National Park Service Director Fran P. Mainella said the designation was in recognition of one of the best examples of preserved habitats and biological and geological characteristics in the country.
The landmark designation was part of a brief ceremony held at Crystal Cove State Park and attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren, Mainella and others.
Other areas similarly designated include Diamond Head in Hawaii, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego County.
At 37,000 acres, the Irvine Ranch National Natural Landmark is one of the largest areas to earn the designation.
The rolling land includes canyons filled with coastal sage scrub, grasslands, and oak woodlands that naturalists say emphasize Southern California’s subtle, natural beauty.
During the evaluation leading to the designation, scientists noted that the area’s natural resources included nearly 80 million years of geologic history “preserved, uninterrupted like a virtual encyclopedia of stratigraphy,” according to Michael Soukup with the National Park Service.
Stratigraphy is the study of rock layers and layering.
The land has many owners, including the state, the county, Irvine, the Irvine Co. and the Nature Conservancy.
To qualify under the landmark criteria, a proposed site must contain some of the best examples of a natural region’s biological and geological features, said Stephen Gibbons, the park service natural landmarks coordinator.
Although national parks are the country’s most treasured assets, there are many other places with unique resources of national significance that won’t ever be protected as parks, Gibbons said.
“I see areas that may not be national-park caliber,” he said. “Nevertheless, they’re great examples of our national heritage. This natural landmark is one of them.”
In his remarks, Schwarzenegger said that Tuesday’s event “celebrates another area of our state that can be enjoyed for generations.”
He also singled Bren out for his “conservation efforts & and generosity.”
The new landmark boundaries are part of the 50,000 acre Irvine Ranch Land Reserve, a nonprofit organization that Bren formed last year to help protect and restore natural resources.
At the time, Bren donated $20 million to support the trust.
Bren said that walking and hiking the ranch’s wilderness lands had made him reemphasize “my dream” that Irvine Ranch would be known “for what has been preserved and protected here.”
The land included in the new designation has been preserved as parks and open space by the various landowners.
It includes Limestone and Fremont canyons, Peters Canyon Regional Park near Orange, Crystal Cove State Park and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Bommer Canyon in Irvine.