Solar energy from space on the horizon

On a recent sunny morning, electrical engineering professor Ali Hajimiri stood on a balcony in Cape Canaveral in Florida, holding his breath as he watched a scene with profound implications for energy use on Earth.

A mile away on the horizon, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rising skyward carried a 110-pound metallic box decked with tiny antennas: a prototype device designed to harvest solar power and beam it back as microwaves to Earth.

“It was so exhilarating to reach this milestone,” said Hajimiri, co-director of the Space Solar Power Project at Caltech. For more than a decade, he and fellow researchers have raced scientists in Japan, China and the European Union to test their revolutionary plan in space.

“This moment, which is the result of the work of so many people, is an important link in a long chain that we hope will make humanity better off.” – Prof. Ali Hajimiri, Caltech

Solar power from space would dramatically outperform the Earth-bound version, which ebbs and flows depending on the time of day, season and weather. Experts say the technology has far greater near-term potential than fusion, which has received much more media attention and billions of dollars in U.S. government support. Within seven years, Hajimiri predicted, space-based solar energy could help supply power to cities anywhere on Earth. In the longer term, it could help wean the world off of fossil fuels, curbing air pollution and climate change.

Caltech’s Space Solar Power Project could supply power to cities anywhere on Earth, curbing pollution. A $100 million contribution from Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren helped fund the research.


Game-changing research

From left, Brigitte Bren and Donald Bren

In 2021, Caltech revealed that Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren had contributed $100 million to initiate and fund the Space Solar Power Project. Bren, who as a young man was inspired by an article on space-based solar power in Popular Science magazine, had suggested that Caltech research the scientific energy approach back in 2011.

“This research is clearly close to their hearts,” Hajimiri said of Bren and his wife, Brigitte, who have stayed close to the Caltech team over the years. “They didn’t want to do incremental work; they wanted to do something transformational, and they had the vision and resources to make it happen.”

Experts agree that space-based solar power could be a major breakthrough in the global quest for clean, abundant and affordable energy – with significant advances expected surprisingly soon. “There’s nothing preventing large-scale space solar power from being deployed within five to eight years,” former NASA researcher John Mankins, author of “The Case for Space Solar Power,” said in an interview.

Demonstrating the potential

Over the next several months, Hajimiri and his team will evaluate data from the prototype, comparing the relative efficacy of various kinds of wireless power transmitters and photovoltaic panels. In the meantime, he said, the team is in conversations with federal government officials, hopeful that space solar power may, in time, become a meaningful part of America’s energy arsenal.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Hajimiri said. “The key point is to demonstrate the potential. But this moment, which is the result of the work of so many people, is an important link in a long chain that we hope will make humanity better off.”

Caltech has launched a prototype to harvest solar power and beam it back as microwaves to Earth.

$100M gift from Irvine Co.’s Bren powers Caltech space electricity idea

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.”

Power everywhere

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.”

Long-term deal

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.

Thinking green

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.”

Irvine Company announces $20-million gift to Irvine Unified School District for fine arts, music and science programs

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.

With Latest Land Donation, County Open Space Grows To 60,000 Acres In Past Five Years

Known for tract homes and urban sprawl, Orange County is also home to vast, public-owned wildlands.

View of Black Star Canyon looking west toward Irvine Lake on Thursday. The area was part of a 2010 land gift from the Irvine Company.
View of Black Star Canyon looking west toward Irvine Lake on Thursday. The area was part of a 2010 land gift from the Irvine Company.

A drone buzzes overhead, photographing a jutting limestone ridge that sits near the juncture of two massive gifts of undeveloped land by Orange County’s largest landowner.

“One side of that ridge is old and one is new,” says John Gump, a county park ranger, standing on a hill that offers sweeping views of craggy bluffs, sage-strewn canyons and a glimmer of blue – Irvine Lake.

The “new” that Gump mentions is a gift made this month by the Irvine Company of nearly 2,500 acres of open space. This month’s gift follows the developer’s gift a few years ago of 20,000 acres.

Orange County is nationally known for well-heeled housewives and rows of tract homes, but the reputation for endless urban sprawl is misplaced. In the last five years, the swaths of open space and parklands owned by the county have grown by 50 percent – to nearly 60,000 acres.

And that doesn’t include the massive Santa Ana Mountain Range operated by the U.S. Forest Service that lines much of the county’s northern border.

With the latest additions, the trove that Gump surveys now stretches from Silverado Canyon to Anaheim – part of the tangible and growing legacy of Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Company. Bren, in return, will enjoy some sizable tax write-offs.

Earlier, some questioned whether OC Parks was equipped to steward such an expanse of open space. The county, however, promises to protect and preserve these lands for generations to come.

What can you find? A deer skeleton, for starters.

Irvine Ranch Conservancy docent Michael Dresser and Jenn Starnes look out over the Sinks from a platform built by the Conservancy.
Irvine Ranch Conservancy docent Michael Dresser and Jenn Starnes look out over the Sinks from a platform built by the Conservancy.


From behind the wheel of his pickup, Gump points to trails that wind through Black Star Canyon.

Exploring this land has never been easier.

Today, there are 9.5 miles of new trails in this area and elsewhere. A new audio tour guides hikers along six or so points of interest.

Much of the county’s open space lies under a conservation easement, meaning access is limited to protect native habitats and wildlife. But for the last four years, OC Parks has opened more than 90 miles of trails to the public through monthly self-guided Wilderness Access Days and daily docent-led activities.

These public programs, along with land management and wildlife monitoring, are handled by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. The nonprofit has a $3 million annual contract with the county.

Gump points to a line of sycamore saplings in 5-gallon buckets.

He stands in the Baker Staging Area, an area with new picnic tables, portable restrooms and a shade canopy. On access days, this is open to the public. Gump says a youth group is coming to plant the saplings, an activity that wasn’t possible before the county took over.

“I think this is a good case study,” says Gump, who has patrolled these county lands and others for seven years. “There was very little access to this area, and now it has been expanded greatly.”

But in years past, some conservationists worried about the parks department’s stewardship of public lands. After the 1994 county bankruptcy, OC Parks’ budget was cut, along with those of other county departments.

It wasn’t until nearly 2010, according to reports, that parks officials felt confident that they could handle the financial burden of managing more land.

Theresa Sears sits on the board of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, a conservation group based in Newport Beach. She served on the Environmental Coalition Land Transfer Steering Committee, a task force that four years ago assessed the county’s potential stewardship of Irvine Company lands.

Sears likened the county’s growing open space to an art collection. “You start collecting and sometimes you don’t know if you can deal with it all,” Sears explained. “Can you afford it?

“Acquisition is one thing, but proper protection is another.”

But times have changed, and so has the department, according to Stacy Blackwood, who took over OC Parks’ leadership last year.

“That was a valid concern at that point,” Blackwood granted. “I think from the Irvine Company perspective, the reason they’re confident in giving the county this additional 2,500 (acres) is the success they’ve seen …with the previous gift.”

Two weeks ago, the county Board of Supervisors agreed and voted unanimously to accept the latest donation.

Even so, questions have surfaced.

As recently as September, county auditors alleged that OC Parks executives, including former parks chief Mark Denny (now the county’s chief operating officer) had a hand in granting no-bid contracts from 2009 to 2014. The contracts, auditors said, went to a friend of one of the parks executives.

The remains of a deer lie on a road in the hills above Black Star Canyon on Thursday. The area was part of a 2010 land gift from the Irvine Company. OC Parks improved the area with trails and amenities at the staging areas.
The remains of a deer lie on a road in the hills above Black Star Canyon on Thursday. The area was part of a 2010 land gift from the Irvine Company. OC Parks improved the area with trails and amenities at the staging areas.


Back in Black Star Canyon, Gump encounters a partial deer skeleton in the middle of a dirt road. He stops his truck to take a closer look. The deer’s skull is still covered in gray fur.

It’s a rare sighting, Gump says. He talks about the wildlife in this canyon: bobcats, foxes, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, even the occasional coyote and mountain lion.

“They’re not just passing through, they live here,” he says.

Gump doesn’t believe the deer fell victim to a mountain lion, which usually bury their kill. Taking a closer look, he says he isn’t sure how it died. “It’s the circle of life, I guess.”

Beyond the question of past financial strains and possible misdeeds at the highest levels of OC Parks, Gump sees a more fundamental issue: love of wildlands.

He explains the need this way: “People need to understand and experience and appreciate the land if they’re going to want to protect it.”

John Gump, operations manager of the Irvine Ranch Open Space, opens a gate on Red Rock Ridge Road in Black Star Canyon. The area was part of a 2010 land gift from the Irvine Company.
John Gump, operations manager of the Irvine Ranch Open Space, opens a gate on Red Rock Ridge Road in Black Star Canyon. The area was part of a 2010 land gift from the Irvine Company.



1897: Irvine Company makes first public land donation of 160 acres for what today is Irvine Regional Park.

1982: More than 7,300 acres of coastal canyon.

1988: 10,000 acres of open space in Irvine.

2001: 11,000 acres of open space; Donald Bren Stewardship Fund of $50 million created for long-term open space management, preservation, restoration and to enhance public access.

2010: 20,000 acres to county.

2014: 2,500 acres of land near Anaheim Hills, East Orange and Irvine Regional Park to county.

Source: Irvine Company


The county Board of Supervisors this month accepted an additional 2,500 acres of open land and approved spending $300,000 a year on land management and public programs. Here is the breakdown of the latest gifts:

Mountain Park

1,073.9 acres; near the 91 and 241 toll road in Anaheim; previously entitled for development of 2,500 homes.

Santiago Hills II

16.2 acres; adjacent to Irvine Regional Park in Orange.

East Orange Area I

469.2 acres; west of Irvine Lake along Santiago Canyon Road and the 241 toll road in Orange; previously entitled to develop 2,200 homes.

East Orange Area II

936.5 acres; southeast of Irvine Lake in the city of Orange; adjacent to Black Star Canyon.

Source: OC Parks


Nicole Shine

Donald Bren’s gift to establish 2,500 acres of open space

Among Donald Bren’s fondest childhood memories are the weekends on Lido Isle, a man-made jewel on the Orange County coast. He’d trek down from the Westside with his best friend’s family and spend long hours rowing in Newport Harbor.

As Bren reminisced nearly seven decades later, he turned to the floor-to-ceiling view from his ninth-floor conference room, taking in Fashion Island, Newport Harbor, Lido Island and the shimmering blue Pacific.

“Long story short,” he said, smiling, “I didn’t go very far.”

Today, Bren is the sole shareholder of Irvine Co., one of the most successful real estate firms in U.S. history, owner of the Irvine Ranch and more than 600 premium office buildings, shopping centers, apartment communities and resort properties. He’s also Southern California’s wealthiest man and America’s richest land developer, with a net worth Forbes estimates at $12 billion, twice that of Eli Broad.

At age 78, he has begun to talk openly about a reality with far-reaching implications: that, one day, all of this will be owned and run by someone else.

In a series of recent conversations, Bren said he has made plans for Irvine Co. to continue as a private company controlled by its independent board of directors, which will choose a new chairman. The beneficiaries, he says, will be a combination of public and private entities, which he declined to specify.

“This is a private company that is set up to operate in perpetuity,” he said.

Bren has been more than just the owner; for more than three decades, he’s been its entrepreneurial heart.

“Clearly, Donald Bren is the Irvine Co. and the Irvine Co. is Donald Bren,” said John Cushman, chairman of the commercial real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield. Imagining the firm without Bren, he added, is akin to pondering what Berkshire Hathaway will be without Warren Buffett.

Over the years, Bren has sculpted the look of modern suburbia in California and, in the process, become one of the country’s largest and most-copied developers of planned communities.

He’s also preserved and donated to the public more acres of California’s open spaces than he has developed, including 20,000 acres of pristine wilderness that he gave to Orange County last year, asking only that it remain open space forever. (“It’s all yours,” he told the parks chief at the ceremony, where he also donated money to help manage it.)

Along the way, Bren has given away $1.3 billion of his fortune, much of it to bolster education, including millions to public school arts and science programs and $200 million to the University of California.

“In terms of great visionaries who have influenced Southern California, I’d put him up there with Walt Disney,” said Rick Caruso, who owns the Grove and other shopping meccas and is a member of the Irvine Co. board.

These days, Bren remains focused on running his company. He dresses in a suit and tie and drives himself to work for a full day of meetings with colleagues, and leaves each evening with a briefcase stuffed full of what he calls “my homework,” articles on history or science that have caught his eye as well as drawings and plans for Irvine Co. properties.

Sometimes, he’ll sit at his home drafting table at night, studying designs for houses, office buildings, shopping centers or resorts.

“He’ll blow in the next morning with a whole wad of tracing paper and overlap drawings for all of our projects,” said Robert Elliott, senior vice president in charge of the 23-person design team. “It’s amazing, because hardly anybody draws anymore. But he draws very well.”

The corporate ethos reflects Bren’s personality, a mix of self-discipline, creativity and entrepreneurship salted with an abiding thirst for knowledge.

But the man who runs this influential company is something of a mystery. He doesn’t like to talk about himself and limits his outside engagements. Those kinds of things, he said, “take focus and energy away from the challenges required to build a new city. I do limit my exposure to the public. You only have so much time.”

Bren looks years younger than his age, with a ruggedly handsome face and the sturdy frame of an athlete. He was a top-flight downhill skier as a young man, and attended the University of Washington on an athletic scholarship. He missed a chance to make the 1956 Olympic team when he broke his ankle in a fall on the slopes.

Bren, his wife, Brigitte, a 45-year-old lawyer, and their 7-year-old son spend many weekends at their ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Bren still tackles the black diamond runs.

Former Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and his wife, Ginny, have joined the family for sailing vacations on the Mediterranean, but they draw the line at the winter slopes. “We don’t ski well enough to keep up with Don and Brigitte,” he said with a laugh.

The Brens, who’ve been married for 12 years, have a home in West Los Angeles, where they enjoy dining with close friends, including former Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife, Gayle. But the Brens spend most of their time at their waterfront villa on tiny Harbor Island, an exclusive neighborhood just a seven-minute drive from corporate headquarters.

Bren’s home is designed in the style of Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Renaissance architect whose influence is evident in the Pelican Hill Resort and other Irvine Co. properties. A student of architecture and history, Bren was inspired by Palladio’s famous treatise, “The Four Books of Architecture.”

“He’s probably the most influential architect in the history of the modern world,” Bren said. “I’m just in love with his designs.”

Bren and his wife are Republicans, and he describes himself as “a fiscal conservative and social moderate.” He backed Wilson’s Senate campaign and contributed to Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial bid. But he’s also long supported Democrat Dianne Feinstein, whom he calls “a great senator for California.”

Bren has worked diligently to keep his personal life private. He has six children, including one with Brigitte and three from his first two marriages.

The two other children, now 18 and 22, were with a former girlfriend. They battled Bren in court last year seeking $130 million in retroactive child support. Bren testified during the trial, and his attorneys noted that he had given the children more than $9 million since their birth and, although he rarely saw them, had already promised to pay their education expenses until the age of 25. The jury sided with Bren.

His two oldest sons are in the real estate business, though neither works for Irvine Co. “The best way for a young person to grow and prosper is on his own, as I did,” Bren said.

Bren grew up in Bel-Air and later Beverly Hills, and graduated with the Beverly Hills High class of 1950. His father, Milton Bren, was a real estate investor and Hollywood film producer best known for the “Topper” screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s.

His parents divorced when Donald and his brother were young, and their father married the film noir actress Claire Trevor in 1948, the year of her Oscar-winning turnin “Key Largo.”

Trevor earned fame playing tough dames, though off-screen she was an intellectual, an accomplished painter and sculptor, and a friend of artists, particularly the 1950s-era abstract expressionists known as the New York School. She introduced Bren to many of those artists, and her appreciation for art had a profound effect on her stepson.

“That was such an exciting period,” Bren recalled. “What I learned from Claire was to see a different dimension, the depth, the symmetry, the relationships, the color. That carried over to architecture for me.”

Bren, who sits on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, describes himself as a modest collector. Paintings by the late Richard Diebenkorn, a California artist and one of Bren’s favorites, hang in the Bren home and at Irvine Co. headquarters.

Bren earned a degree in business and economics at UW, then entered the Marines as an infantry officer after the Korean War, leaving with the rank of first lieutenant. The discipline “was a rude awakening after college life,” he recalled with a laugh. But it’s something he still values, and he regularly attends the Marines’ birthday celebration in Orange County.

After his discharge, Bren considered law school. But on a return visit to Newport Beach he spotted a waterfront lot for sale on Lido Isle, the same place he’d played as a youngster. He borrowed $10,000 from a friend at a bank, a little more from an acquaintance at a savings and loan, and became a home builder.

Bren Co. grew quickly in the post-World War II boom, developing a reputation for attractive designs and quality construction. He developed the first master plan for 10,000 acres in Mission Viejo, building homes, a shopping center and a golf course, and was erecting thousands of homes a year across California.

In 1977 he took the fateful gamble of buying a controlling interest in Irvine Co. with two other investors.

The company’s signature property was the Irvine Ranch, 93,000 acres that stretched from Newport Beach to the Cleveland National Forest, five times the size of Manhattan and one-fifth of Orange County. The ranch was named for James Irvine, an Irish immigrant who pieced together Spanish and Mexican land grants during the Lincoln presidency.

When the housing market stalled in the early 1980s, Bren made a move that touched off one of the biggest legal battles in the history of Orange County.

It began when Bren borrowed $560 million and bought out his partners. Then he moved to acquire the final shares from Irvine family members, including James Irvine’s great-granddaughter Joan Irvine Smith. She contended that Bren had grossly underpaid for the company, and their years-long legal fight ultimately cost more than $30 million. In the end, a court mediator settled the case and Bren paid Smith $240 million, or less than half what she had sought.

By 1991, he was the sole owner of a stunning property that lay squarely in the path of an explosion of suburban growth south of Los Angeles.

Irvine Co. had taken initial steps to create the master plan for the city of Irvine and set aside land for public spaces, but after Bren took over, he greatly expanded those efforts.

Bren’s swift moves and his company’s growing power spawned enemies in those years. Environmentalists were suspicious of his promises to leave large parts of the ranch untouched. Others accused the company of transforming vast swaths of the ranch into bland suburban developments.

But, today, Bren has won over many of his critics. When he donated the wilderness acres to Orange County last year, environmentalists praised him. Jean Watt, president of the nonprofit Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, hailed it as “a new era of cooperation.”

Even Larry Agran, the former mayor of the city of Irvine who for years was a Bren critic, has come around. “What the pioneers of the Irvine Co. understood, and what Bren and the company have come to realize, is that planning really works,” he said.

The city of Irvine, population 217,000, is about 85% developed, with a 20-year supply of residential lots remaining. It has a median home value of $600,000 and acres of space devoted to parks, community buildings, sports fields and green belts.

The Irvine Co. vision, that a community with plenty of open spaces would make the private development all the more profitable, has paid off. Last year, while builders everywhere struggled to get off the mat, Irvine Co. restarted its dormant home-construction division and has since sold 1,200 homes there.

Today, Irvine Co.’s suburban juggernaut covers 44,000 acres of the ranch, and nearly half the rest is a natural habitat with a National Natural Landmark designation, home to mountain lions, golden eagles and dozens of species of rare and endangered plants and animals.

“I’ve heard people say he only protected it because it couldn’t be developed. But they either haven’t seen it or haven’t seen what developers can do in Southern California,” said Michael O’Connell, a conservation biologist who heads the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. “He could have developed it all.”

The company’s reach now extends well beyond the ranch. It has commercial, retail, residential and resort holdings in Los Angeles, San Diego and Silicon Valley, 95 million square feet of investment property in all. A few months ago, it bought the 5-year-old Hyatt Center, an elliptical 48-story office tower in Chicago.

Irvine Co. doesn’t release financial details, but it holds the highest credit rating, with a debt load about half of its competitors’; most of its office and retail properties, and all of its land, are debt-free.

For more than a quarter-century, the key to Irvine Co.’s success has been Bren. He plans to lead the company as long as he’s able.

But, when the time comes, Bren says, the company board, which now includes Caruso, Ueberroth and Wilson, will select a new leader, most likely from Bren’s four-member “office of the chairman,” the top lieutenants who work with him to chart the company’s future.

“No one lives forever,” said Daniel Young, a five-term Santa Ana mayor who heads the company’s community planning and development division and is one of those top executives. “But there’s a system in place and a great board in place.”

Bren carefully chose his words when speaking about that future.

“The Irvine Co. doesn’t end with me,” he said. “I’m just here for a period. The company goes on.”

Los Angeles Times

Scott Kraft
Los Angeles Times

“It’s All Yours,” Bren Tells O.C.

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.

Pat Brennan
Orange County Register

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

Irvine Co. Gives 20,000 Acres Of Open Space To Orange County

A rugged, 20,000-acre parcel of the original Irvine Ranch a pristine landscape of steep canyons, native grassland and sycamore woodland that is home to golden eagles, mountain lions and dozens of rare and endangered species of plants and animals became public property Tuesday in a historic deal with the developer who has sculpted the look of modern suburbia in Southern California.

The open-space land, a gift from Donald Bren and the Irvine Co., was unanimously accepted by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, which also approved a long-term plan to manage the natural habitat, designated a National Natural Landmark four years ago. In one swoop, the size of parkland owned by the county grew by more than half.

The transfer of a large part of the historic ranch was an important milestone, placing the last major chunk of open private land in public hands and signaling the end of an era of enormous growth for Orange County.

It also was the culmination of an effort that Bren, a 78-year-old multibillionaire, launched more than three decades ago when he took control of the 94,000-acre Irvine Ranch, about a fifth of Orange County.

“It’s been a long trail, these last 30 years, and this is a very significant event for us,” Bren said in a rare interview after the handover.

He called the private-public partnership on open spaces a rare example of “social entrepreneurship,” adding that “I’m proud of the people in the company who spent so much time with these community partnerships. I couldn’t be more pleased. This is an investment in the future. It lives forever, and that is in fact a legacy.”

Over the years, Bren’s vision as a developer has transformed the Orange County landscape. His Irvine Co. created a retail, commercial and suburban juggernaut on 44,000 acres of the ranch, from the Newport coast to the city of Irvine, becoming, in the process, one of the world’s largest and most-copied developers of planned communities.

But he also set aside 50,000 acres for parks, greenways, and a recreational and wilderness preserve. More than half of that was previously donated to the public; the land given to the county Tuesday completes the transfer.

“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,” said Michael O’Connell, executive director of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. “It’s a world-class piece of land.”

The conservancy, a nonprofit entity created by the Donald Bren Foundation, will continue to manage the land, under contract to the county’s parks department.

The new county wilderness area extends from near the 91 Freeway south to the hills above Irvine, and parts of it are visible from both sides of the 241 toll road in eastern Orange County. It includes Loma Ridge, Laguna Laurel and Limestone Canyon, and plans are under way to create a new, 2,000-acre nature park, Black Star Canyon Regional Park, adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest.

Nearly five times the size of Griffith Park, the land is essentially one large tract, which makes it important ecologically. It is part of what scientists call a Mediterranean climate zone, an area characterized by dry, mild weather and coastal fog that covers just 2% of the planet but contains 20% of all known plant species.

The land is a “truly magnificent, a globally important ‘hotspot’ of biological diversity,” said Albert Bennett, dean of the School of Biological Sciences at UC Irvine. He said students and faculty travel the world to study similarly endowed open spaces “and these local lands rival many of those places in their diversity and biological importance.”

Scientists also regard the tract as a geological treasure, and parts of it preserve an intact record of the last 80 million years of Earth history.

The parkland is rare among similarly sized natural habitats in the United States because it is so close to a highly urbanized area the land is within a half-hour drive of nearly 3 million people.

Much of the parkland is remote and untouched, though part of it has been accessible to the public in the past, mostly through naturalist-led hikes and recreation days when visitors can go mountain biking and horseback riding. But access to the sensitive habitat is limited, and the county says that is likely to continue as the county develops long-term preservation plans.

“We want to create as many opportunities as possible for people to connect to the land and care about it,” O’Connell said. “But not so much that they love it too much and threaten the values that make it so special.”

When the Irvine Co. announced the wilderness gift last year, some environmentalists raised questions about whether the county had the financial resources to protect it.

The funding plan presented Tuesday by Mark Denny, director of Orange County Parks, includes $4 million from the Irvine Co. for management and capital improvements as well as a $1-million endowment for a scientific research center at UC Irvine. In addition, the Nature Conservancy is contributing $2 million.

A hiker explores rugged Fremont Canyon in Orange County's Irvine Ranch.
A hiker explores rugged Fremont Canyon in Orange County’s Irvine Ranch.

Environmentalists welcomed the plan Tuesday. Penny Elia, of the Sierra Club told the supervisors that it marked a “historic day.” Jean Watt, president of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting natural habitats, said the gift “lays the groundwork for a new era of cooperation” among the county, environmental advocates and private organizations.

The donation was the largest single transfer of private property to public ownership in Orange County history, increasing the county’s parks and open-space protected land from 39,000 acres to more than 59,000 acres.

The Irvine Ranch got its name from its original owner, James Irvine, an Irish immigrant who started a produce and grocery business in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and, with his partners, assembled the ranch from Spanish and Mexican land grants. His son, James Jr., inherited the ranch in 1892 and launched one of the state’s earliest large-scale agricultural enterprises.

In 1897, the Irvine Co. made its first public land donation: 304 acres near the city of Orange that is today known as Irvine Regional Park.

Bren, one of the last California land barons, took over the company with two partners in 1977 and, two years later, they sold a discounted tract of land to the state to create Crystal Cove State Park.

After Bren bought out his partners, he began a more aggressive move to develop the ranch and, at the same time, began a process of large-scale land preservation aimed at creating wildlife corridors and protecting the natural habitat.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Bren frequently took advantage of California’s open spaces, hiking and camping in the mountains. As an outdoorsman, he said, “I really appreciated nature.”

His family had a beach home in Orange County, and since he moved there 50 years ago, he said, “I’ve seen Orange County grow and I’ve grown with it. And one of the great opportunities was to be part of this open-space preservation partnership with the ranch. I think it’s really the monumental legacy for this company.”

Los Angeles Times

Scott Kraft
Los Angeles Times

Bren One of Nation’s Top 10 Philanthropists

The 10 Top American Givers

BusinessWeek announces the 2008 “Top American Philanthropists.”
by Aili McConnon and Lawrence Delevingne

Many of America’s ultra-rich continued to give big donations to charity in 2008, despite the worst financial crisis in decades. In the past year, seven philanthropists gave north of $200 million and nine gave more than $100 million to causes ranging from wilderness preservation to fighting malaria. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates remain far and away the biggest givers overall, but two of 12 newcomers to the list pledged to give more than $1 billion away: William Barron Hilton, co-chairman of the Hilton hotel chain who pledged late last year to give away 97% of his wealth — some $1.7 billion — to his family’s humanitarian foundation and Peter G. Peterson, co-founder of the investment firm Blackstone Group, who gave $1 billion this year to establish a foundation that promotes fiscal responsibility.

Here are the Top 10 American Givers:

1. Warren Buffett

Berkshire Hathaway CEO
2004-08 Giving* $40,655 million

Buffett’s $31 billion commitment to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced in June 2006, resonated throughout the philanthropic community. The giving is aimed at funding education and global health initiatives. This year the commitment to the Gates Foundation still resonates, inspiring other donors with a new model of philanthropy. Buffett, the world’s second-richest man, also earmarked billions for the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the NoVo Foundation — independent family foundations that support causes ranging from reproductive health to worldwide conservation.

For more, visit the Warren Buffett Philanthropy.

2. Bill & Melinda Gates

Microsoft co-founder
2004-08 Giving* $2,625 million

Bill and Melinda Gates give through their massive Seattle-based family foundation, which says it is “committed to ensuring all people have the opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives.” With an endowment of nearly $36 billion, the foundation works with partners to give people a chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty in developing countries and, in the U.S., to ensure that all people have the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Its endowment is eventually expected to double, thanks to a long-term $31 billion gift from investor Warren Buffett, which pays out in installments. Recent initiatives include $100 million in micro medical-research grants; a $164 million grant to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa; and $125 million to fight global tobacco use as part of a $500 million partnership with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

For more, visit the Gates Foundation.

3. George Kaiser

Oil and gas, banking, investments
2004-08 Giving* $2,377 million

Kaiser’s focus remains on early intervention in the cycle of poverty. Giving through his Tulsa-based foundation provides services that include early childhood education, pre-natal health care, public health, in-home parenting, and secondary education, as well as more generalized safety net services that deal with the symptoms of poverty. More recent initiatives have focused on women’s incarceration, secondary schools, and reserving land to create an arts and entertainment district in Tulsa. The biggest payout may be yet to come: Kaiser has said he plans to increase his gifts “until I die with one dollar left, assuming I can get the timing just right.”

For more, visit the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

4. George Soros

2004-08 Giving* $2,214 million

Soros distributes $400 million or more each year through his charitable network, which aims to foster open and democratic societies around the world. This year Soros gave some $535 million to dozens of initiatives, including education in Liberia, microfinance in India, and mental health in Moldova. In 2005 he gave an extra $200 million for his Central European University, a graduate school he helped found in Budapest in 1991. An immigrant from Hungary who made his first billion dollars in England, Soros has given nearly $7 billion to support his network of foundations in more than 60 countries.

For more, visit the Open Society Institute.

5. William Barron Hilton

Heir and former CEO of Hilton Hotels
2004-08 Giving* $1,700 million

New to list Following in his father’s footsteps, Hilton late last year announced his intention to leave 97% of his wealth to charity after his stakes in Hilton Hotels and Harrah’s Entertainment were bought out by private equity groups for billions. Hilton’s fortune will go to his family’s foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which works to alleviate the suffering of the world’s most disadvantaged, with an emphasis on children and support for the work of Roman Catholic nuns. Grants go to causes such as stopping trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness in Africa; helping homeless families in the U.S.; and providing clean water in Mexico.

For more, visit the Hilton Foundation.

6. Walton Family

Family of Wal-Mart founder

2004-08 Giving* $1,380 million

The world’s richest family is also one of the most united when it comes to philanthropy. The secretive Waltons commit the bulk of their gifts through the Walton Family Foundation, which supports a variety of charitable causes. Their areas of focus: K-12 education reform, quality-of-life initiatives in northwest Arkansas (home to Wal-Mart), economic development initiatives in the Mississippi Delta region of the U.S., and most recently, marine and fresh water fishing sustainability initiatives.

For more, visit the Walton Family Foundation.

7. Herbert & Marion Sandler

Golden West Financial co-founders
2004-08 Giving* $1,329 million

The Sandlers have given away more than $1 billion to the Sandler Foundation, which works to strengthen progressive causes, such as: exposing corruption and abuse of power; advocating for vulnerable and exploited people and environments; and advancing scientific research. Last year, for example, the foundation committed $10 million a year to launch and sustain ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom, under the leadership of former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger, that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. The foundation also helped establish the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress with a $50 million gift in 2004.

For more, visit the Sandler Foundation.

8. Peter Peterson

Blackstone Group co-founder
2004-08 Giving* $1,168 million

New to list Using his proceeds from Blackstone Group’s IPO, Peterson donated $1 billion to establish the Peter G. Peterson Foundation this year. The focus: to encourage greater fiscal responsibility in the U.S. The foundation has already purchased, promoted, and distributed the documentary I.O.U.S.A. to educate Americans about swelling national and personal debt. (The film is likened by many to Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth.) The former Commerce Secretary’s timing was uncanny as the financial crisis underscored his urgent message about excessive spending.

For more, visit the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

9. Donald Bren

Real estate developer
2004-08 Giving* $908 million

Using property and wealth from his real estate business, Bren has given more than $1 billion, much of it to support education. Bren’s commitment to schooling runs the gamut from students to principals to school districts to university scholars on his Irvine Ranch. This year Bren gave $8.5 million to THINK Together after-school programs, one of the largest private donations to after-school programs in California history. In 2007 gifts included $20 million for a new law school at University of California at Irvine and $3 million in annual grants, teacher recognition, and student scholarships. In 2006 he gave a $20 million gift to fund elementary fine arts, music, and science programs at schools in Irvine, Calif.

For more, visit the Donald Bren Foundation.

10. Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg founder, NYC Mayor
2004-08 Giving* $903 million

This year, Bloomberg added a $250 million, four-year commitment to his Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, which was established in 2005 and has received more than $375 million from the New York City mayor. The new money is in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Late last year, Bloomberg’s Family Foundation gave $9 million to promote global road safety, among others on the mayor’s long list of charitable causes each year. Dedicated to making strides in education, he has also committed $100 million to alma mater Johns Hopkins University and purchased a townhouse on the Upper East Side for his future foundation. Bloomberg gave $10 million to the World Trade Center Foundation. Since 1997, Bloomberg has pledged more than $1.5 billion to charities and initiatives.

For more, visit the Bloomberg Philanthropies.

*Based on public records and interviews with donors.

Data: BusinessWeek, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University

Copyrighted, Business Week. All rights reserved

After School Help Program gets Major Gift

Developer and philanthropist Donald Bren on Tuesday reached beyond the Orange County communities he helped build and define, announcing an $8.5-million donation to benefit after-school programs in Santa Ana and east Los Angeles County.

The gift will bolster Santa Ana-based THINK Together, an after-school program that extends the school day for children who need extra coaching with classwork or homework help, often because their parents are working or lack English skills. The program provides an additional hour of schooling, homework assistance and physical education.

Natalie Rangel, 8, listens to a friend on a string-and-cup telephone during after-school classes.
Natalie Rangel, 8, listens to a friend on a string-and-cup telephone during after-school classes.

Bren, whose Irvine Co. and Donald Bren Foundation have contributed more than $200 million to public schools and universities, was motivated to choose THINK Together after a January speech by state Education Supt. Jack O’Connell challenged listeners to “imagine if every school had access to a successful business partner to provide mentors, materials and opportunities for students.”

Natalie Rangel, 8, listens to a friend on a string-and-cup telephone during after-school classes.
The donation is Bren’s largest outside the boundaries of the old Irvine Ranch, which included Irvine, Newport Beach, Tustin, Orange, Laguna Beach and Anaheim, said John Christensen, Irvine Co. spokesman.

Beyond having shaped the identity of cities like Irvine and high-end enclaves such as Newport Coast, the Irvine Co. owns about 400 office buildings, 40 retail centers, 90 apartment communities, two hotels, five marinas and three golf clubs.
“My goal is for this funding to help close the achievement gap and truly make a difference by providing resources that otherwise would not be available,” Bren said in a written statement.

THINK Together, which has a $25-million annual budget, already operates in 13 Santa Ana schools. The funding will allow the program to expand to each of the 36 grade schools in Santa Ana Unified School District, said schools Supt. Jane Russo. Programs in Los Angeles County are just beginning.

The infusion of funds could play a role in improving test scores in a district where they have traditionally lagged, Russo said.

At Monte Vista Elementary School, where the program has been in place for a year, the Academic Performance Index jumped 97 points to 724 during the 2006-07 school year. Principal Paulina Jacobs said part of the credit went to THINK Together. Santa Ana students “not only have to learn the California standards, which are the most challenging in the United States, but they also have to learn a new language as well,” Russo said. “This donation gives our students a leg up to do both.”

In a Monte Vista Elementary School classroom in Santa Ana on Tuesday, about 20 children gathered to get homework help from Ernesto Nodado, a THINK Together instructor. Third-grader Jairo Peralta struggled to understand adverbs.

Students in a THINK Together program go to their next class. The program received an $8.5-million donation.
Students in a THINK Together program go to their next class. The program received an $8.5-million donation.

Students in a THINK Together program go to their next class. The program received an $8.5-million donation.
“Does it describe how something is done?” he asked.

Peralta got the nod of approval and continued his homework. Nodado went on to explain that many adverbs end in “ly.”

“My parents really can’t help me,” Peralta explained to a visitor. “They were born in Mexico. So this is a good way for me to do better in school.”

Randy Barth, a one-time stock broker, founded THINK Together in 1997. The nonprofit organization now serves 20,000 students at more than 180 sites in school districts throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The gift Tuesday includes $150,000 that will be used for a leadership program that will eventually expand nascent programs in eastern Los Angeles County cities, including Whittier, Azusa and Baldwin Park.

Parent Rafaela Cruz predicts that the expansion of the organization’s efforts in Santa Ana will help children like hers.

Cruz said her son, David Peñalosa, 8, “couldn’t read well before he got into the program. Now he can recognize more words, and he’s helping his brother,” a kindergartner, to recognize words.

“What they gave my son was a gift that I couldn’t,” said Cruz, 28, who picks strawberries. “I never made it past second grade myself.”

Los Angeles Times

Jennifer Delson
Los Angeles Times