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Old Town Irvine Is Brand New : Developers Staking Their $20-Million Restoration on Nostalgia and a Little Something for Everyone

February 05, 1989|MICHAEL FLAGG | Times Staff Writer

Over in the corner of the Knowlwood restaurant at Old Town Irvine, there are some odd marks burned into a wooden wall.

When this was a blacksmith's shop, those marks were the brands of the ranches hereabouts. The blacksmith used them for reference when making new branding irons.

The shop was at the center of Irvine, when the city was a small farming community at the turn of the century. The railroad depot was here, near where the tracks met Sand Canyon Avenue; so was a school, a silo for the tons of lima beans harvested each year, a general store, a bunkhouse for the ranch's cowboys and later the first Ford dealership in Orange County.

Now, most of the lima bean fields are covered with streets and pastel-colored subdivisions, low-slung industrial buildings and boxy office towers of tinted glass: A city of 98,000 that did most of its growing in just the last 20 years.

And the buildings of Old Town, once ramshackle and derelict, have been spruced up to entice the yuppies of Irvine, the Marines from the nearby El Toro air station and passers-by on the adjacent Santa Ana Freeway.

Old Town is probably the largest restoration project in Orange County, a $20-million gamble that is too new to tell whether it will succeed. Will people want to stay at a hotel made from a concrete grain silo? Can the nearby corrugated metal warehouse find the right mix of tenants to keep shoppers coming back? Those are the sort of questions that pester Robert B. Smith.

A Talk With Tenants

On a recent weekday afternoon, Smith wheeled his Jaguar into the parking lot of La Quinta Inn at Old Town and got out to talk to his tenants.

Smith, 43, is one of the general partners behind Old Town. He has a doctorate in psychology and teaches at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa when he's not developing small real estate projects. Old Town is his largest project.

Calling each tenant by name, Smith stops for a fresh-squeezed orange juice at the Orange Inn Cafe & Market and for a shooter of tequila at Tia Juana's Long Bar & Mexican Cafe--"Longest Bar in Orange County"--where a well-dressed, after-work crowd is just trooping in.

"We tried not to have chains in here," said Smith as he shows a guest around Tia Juana's enormous, 9,000-square-foot restaurant.

"We had a chance to make deals with people like Denny's, but we wanted our tenants to have a uniqueness."

Split Personality

Still, Old Town seems to have a touch of retailing's version of the split personality. At the far end of the 6.5-acre project is Knowlwood, basically a fast-food joint, and at the other end is a snazzy, expensive wine shop called Sirus Cellars where customers can find unusual vintages and can store their purchase in their own rented wine cellar.

The idea is to delicately balance the mix of stores and restaurants to appeal to the widest spectrum of customers, from the Marines at the nearby air base to Irvine professionals to older people from the Leisure World retirement community down the freeway, said Tim Sloat, a broker for Scher-Voit Commercial Brokerage Co., who is leasing the project. Yet the stores have to be unique enough to keep people coming back.

And since there's room for only a few more stores or restaurants at Old Town, the choices had better be right, Sloat said. Bad choices could take the other retailers down with them.

"The decision was to provide as wide a range of retailers as possible, excluding the typical neighborhood shopping center tenants like dry cleaners, frozen yogurt places and chain pizza operations," Sloat explained.

"We also had to be careful not to run the risk of having a cheap imitation of Knott's Berry Farm, in which case people would laugh at us."

There is actually a glut of store space in most of Orange County, but not in Irvine or, for that matter, in the whole southern half of the county. The south county is growing so fast--that's where all the undeveloped land is--that there are still plenty of customers. In the northern half of the county, where population growth is slower, video stores, pizza shops and convenience stores have multiplied so rapidly that they're stealing each other's customers.

So even though two-thirds of the retailers who want to move into Old Town probably aren't suitable, Sloat says, there are still plenty left to choose from.

Monthly rental rates are about average for Irvine, from $1.75 to $2.50 per square foot, plus the tenant's share of property taxes, insurance and maintenance. And so are the amounts of money Old Town grants tenants to decorate their stores, say other real estate brokers with experience in the Irvine market.

While the restored buildings are fairly snazzy, one thing that keeps rents down is the fact that Old Town really isn't centrally located in Irvine--it's on the eastern end--and it isn't really on the way to anywhere in that part of the county.

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