The absence of a shared vision or coordinated overall plan in urban Orange County can be traced to several root causes.
* The influence and independence of a relative handful of powerful developers who own large chunks of valuable land and go about their business with little effective control by local city agencies.
* A lack of clear long-range urban planning objectives by the four cities--Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Irvine and Newport Beach--whose jurisdictions cover the central Orange County urban region.
* A scarcity of consultation and coordination among these cities, though they share the common problems of traffic congestion created by the area's rapid commercial development.
Varying in size from the Irvine Co.'s 64,000-acre holdings to Segerstrom's 2,240 acres on down to smaller landowners such as Newport Beach's Mola Development Corp., local land barons have carved powerful fiefdoms out of the commercial heart of Orange County.
The Irvine Co. has divided up the old Irvine Ranch into districts containing houses, offices, shops, research centers and the UC Irvine campus, based on a 1960 master plan prepared by architect Pereira.
Pereira's plan, covering a territory that stretches from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific, set the model that has shaped the urban form of central Orange County.
The problems with this model are inherent in the patterns of power it reflects and the increasingly outdated suburban concepts upon which it was based.
By developing each chunk of land independently, developers have created inward-looking, isolated projects that do not relate to one another or encourage the kind of pedestrian street life that makes a city's center worth spending time in during or after working hours.
By rigidly segregating the areas where people live from where they work, the death of downtown after the offices empty out in the evening is guaranteed. The frustration of rush-hour congestion as office workers hurry home becomes a way of life.
Spurring various initiatives to integrate residential and commercial areas is a widespread concern about what experts call "the jobs-housing imbalance."
This means that while thousands of new jobs are added each year in central Orange County, mostly in the Irvine Business Complex and South Coast Metro areas, the number of traditional single-family homes at a price an average family or young couple can afford has fallen behind the pace of job creation.
"The result is that people live too far from where they work," said Irvine Co. senior planner Ron Hendrickson. "This not only generates too much traffic, it deprives people of the leisure time in which they might stroll the avenues where they live or work and so develop a stronger feeling of identity with both."
Dan Heinfeld, president-designate of the Orange County Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, agrees.
"If we don't want young couples who work in central Orange County to have to go as far out as Riverside to find a place to live they can afford, we must construct much more multiple-housing units, like apartments and condos, closer to the downtowns," he said.
Heinfeld is the partner in charge of the Orange office of Leason Pomeroy Architects, designers of the $55-million John Wayne Airport terminal. The new terminal will allow the airport to double its annual passenger capacity from 4.75 million to 8.4 million when it opens this fall.
The enlarged airport is perceived by planners as the key piece of the puzzle spurring the surrounding cities to coordinate their development strategies, including initiatives designed to integrate residential and commercial developments in a more urban scenario.
At its March 22 meeting the Costa Mesa City Council considered an Urban Center Mixed Use draft ordinance, prepared by the city's planners, that would encourage developers to build projects that include housing--mostly rental apartments and condos--among the shops and offices in South Coast Metro. This would allow people employed in the commercial towers or in South Coast Plaza to live close by, and maybe even walk to work.
City of Costa Mesa planner Mike Robinson, one of the authors of the mixed-use ordinance, is delighted that the city itself is beginning to play a role in the area's urban design.
"Public planning agencies in Costa Mesa must begin to provide the framework of policies that encourage the integration of living areas and work places," he said. "This is the only way we can create livable downtowns."
Meanwhile in Irvine, the Irvine Business Complex, South Coast Metro's rival for the role of central Orange County's major urban focus, is also developing a strategy for the creation of a true downtown.
A draft plan under consideration by the city of Irvine proposes an "Urban Village Concept" for the now dispersed business center divided by the San Diego Freeway.