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May 21, 1989|MARK LANDSBAUM | Landsbaum is a Times staff writer

The promise: 'An environment as attractive, as balanced and as enduring as urban planning can make it . . . where urban sprawl has been stopped before it has started.' The result: A tidy, unblemished, well-manicured place to live and work.

n the 1920s, an otherwise unremarkable expanse of ranchland was best known as the world's second-largest source of lima beans. In the 1960s, it was taking shape as a master-planned community. In the 1970s, it was the largest planned community in North America.

Today, Irvine, whose residents voted for cityhood in 1971, is a tidy, unblemished, well-manicured place to live and work. And, like most communities, it has its critics and its boosters.

New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger recently described it this way: "Irvine is a world of condominiums and freeways, of shopping malls and office towers, in which everything looks as if it had been finished last month or will be finished next month, and what is old is what was built five years ago."

To some residents that newness is part of its attraction. Konrad K. Larson, who has lived in Irvine for 19 years, considers it "a very attractive place to live. It's new. It does have a . . . lot of parks. The schools are very good" and it is safe and clean.

IRVINE THE CITY IS contained on about 64,000 acres of what was once part of Irvine the ranch, a 108,184-acre bonanza purchased by James Irvine Sr. in 1876, when he bought out his partners, acquiring title to all of it. The name has stuck, although family ownership of the land had disappeared by 1983.

If the vastness of 64,000 acres is difficult to grasp, consider this: Geographically, the town is larger than Boston and San Francisco combined.

For a new city to flourish, "you have to be right in front of a wave of people moving toward you," observes Republican lawmaker Gil Ferguson, who was vice president of public relations and advertising for the Irvine Co. before he was elected to represent Irvine residents in the state Assembly.

"As the people marched out of Los Angeles after World War II, they marched into Orange County," Ferguson says.

In the path of this migration was what became the city of Irvine. It grew from an unincorporated community of fewer than 100 residents (most of them ranch workers) in 1960 to a full-service city of about 110,000 (most of them homeowners) today.

Of course, all of Orange County was in the path of that migration. What set Irvine apart was its heralded master plan, the blueprint to control and shape what was to come.

Its origins can be traced to the late 1950s. By then, the Irvine Co. had made a tidy fortune farming and ranching the old homestead, patriarch James I. Irvine II had been dead a decade and the University of California was looking for a place to put a new campus.

William L. Pereira--the world-renowned architect who brought a pyramid to San Francisco, an international airport to Los Angeles, a space station to Cape Canaveral and movie sets to "Gone With the Wind"--brought UC Irvine to the site of a one-time hog farm donated by the Irvine Co.

Pereira, hired first by the University of California, then later by the Irvine Co., also brought the concept of villages to the planned community. Pereira designed the first of the community's planned villages, University Park, to surround the UC Irvine campus.

The village was to be a community unto itself with a unique look and feel, employing open space with bicycle paths, parks, roads and greenbelts, and it would be regulated by a resident association.

Pereira and Irvine Co. planners expanded the concept to the adjoining property that became the rest of the city. As more than 30 villages were added, each retained its distinctive qualities but was linked harmoniously with neighboring villages. From any point in town, shopping, schools and recreation areas were located within walking distance from homes along attractive, well-kept public corridors, such as the elaborate bicycle paths that weave through and link each village.

Telephone and utility lines were placed underground, and parks, paseos, greenbelts and setbacks decorated the landscape within and between the villages. This was strikingly unlike the hodgepodge of suburban tracts that sprawled across the Southern California basin.

Before incorporation, the Irvine Co. had received from county government approval of a master plan for the southern portion of its land surrounding the university. Plans were also being formulated for areas to the north.

But after the vote for cityhood in 1971, all plans were combined, and an overall master plan for Irvine took shape. The resulting plan outlined how and how much of the pristine ranch and farmland would be built upon and, perhaps more important, how much would not. Under the plan, two-thirds of the city will be developed and one-third will remain open space.

All this was wrapped neatly in a slogan that promised: "We build tomorrow's cities today."

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