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University Hills: A Study in Faculty Living : Academia: Proximity to campus and low-cost homes lure UCI employees to this unique enclave.


IRVINE — Remembering the directions to John and Kathy King's home in the hilly southern end of the UC Irvine campus is a bit like cramming for a history exam.

Drive past Blake (the English poet and painter), Curie (the husband-and-wife French physicists), Dickens (the English novelist) and Gibbs (the American mathematical physicist). Then hang a right at Harvey. You remember William Harvey: the British physician who discovered how blood circulates in the body.

Welcome to University Hills, the 100-acre academic enclave where the streets are named after famous scholars and each household shares one thing in common: At least one family member works at the university.

Take the Kings' cul-de-sac.

Their neighbors include one of the world's experts on attention deficit disorder, a psychologist who does brain research, an orthopedic surgeon, the head of the German department, and professors of social ecology, management and philosophy. Their next-door neighbor? He's a low-temperature physicist.

Bordered on the west by an ecological preserve and backed by open land, University Hills is pure Southern California in look: mostly earth-tone stucco homes with red-tile roofs on quiet streets called courts.

It's the kind of place where everyone seems to know everyone else and people feel safe taking an evening stroll. You never know who you might run into.

Former UCI Chancellor Jack Peltason, now UC president and living in the Bay Area, still owns a home in University Hills. And Thomas Keneally, the Australian author of "Schindler's List," who was hired as a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature in 1992, rents a three-bedroom house there.

"If you look at it, it looks like the sort of ideal American suburb in which Steven Spielberg shoots some of his stuff," said Keneally, an inveterate traveler who lives in University Hills not only for its proximity to campus but to John Wayne Airport.

"It seems quiet on the surface, but when you go to parties at people's homes you find there's a ferment of all sorts of concepts from various disciplines--science stuff and social theory."

Indeed, where else could someone go to a party and meet, as Keneally did, the great French philosopher and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who spends five weeks a year teaching at UCI?

Here, at what local wags call Nerd Hill, Keneally finds the cocktail party chit-chat "transcends" the normal suburban banter. "Lawn mowers and automobiles get their mention as well, but there are some remarkable people up there and that makes it an interesting place to live."

Created a decade ago to lure prospective out-of-state faculty members, who would take one look at Orange County's high-priced housing market and turn heels, University Hills offers homes that are substantially below the cost of comparable houses nearby.

Today, about 1,800 people make their home in University Hills and, although university recruitment has fallen off dramatically in recent years, about 100 faculty and staff members already working at UCI have their names on waiting lists for both attached and detached homes.

The Kings moved to University Hills from their longtime home in Santa Ana six years ago, in part because of the opportunity to build on one of the 13 custom lots then available.

"But the main attraction to us, honestly, was to be able to live close to work," said Kathy King, whose husband is a professor with a joint appointment in information and computer science and management. "John's office is a 10-minute walk or a two-minute bicycle ride."

The idea of providing faculty housing dates back to 1960, when renowned architect William Pereira drew up the original master plan for UCI. But it wasn't until the early '80s, when UCI was undergoing record growth and competing nationally for faculty, that the concept made it off the drawing board.

At the time, UCI was recruiting 60 faculty members a year.

"Many prospective faculty members would come out and say they'd love to come to UCI, but they can't afford the homes in Orange County," said Leon Schwartz, president of the Irvine Campus Housing Authority. "We heard that often, particularly at the assistant professor level."

James Nowick, an assistant professor of chemistry, says being able to buy a home in University Hills was a factor in his coming to UCI from MIT three years ago. Having rented an apartment in Cambridge, Mass., for $1,200 a month, however, he was used to high-cost housing.

"Cambridge, New York and Southern California are among the most expensive places in the country," he said. "But if I were coming from Wisconsin, Minnesota or even Chicago, I would look at Southern California and have complete sticker shock.

"I think many faculty would not be able to purchase (a home) and would be driven away by the high cost of real estate."

Currently, the approximately 223 condominiums in University Hills sell from $95,000 to $300,000 and the 275 detached homes go for $150,000 to $350,000.

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