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A Growing Spectrum

As a hub of technology, the area has been growing at breakneck speed and hasn't any intention of slowing. No, it's not Silicon Valley. Try Irvine.

May 18, 1997|MELINDA FULMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What started out as a bean field in Irvine 13 years ago has sprouted into one of the country's premier technology addresses.

The 3,600-acre Irvine Spectrum emerged relatively unscathed from the California recession two years ago and has been growing at breakneck speed ever since. All told, 2,200 companies employing more than 36,000 people now make their home in the business community cradled in the convergence of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways.

In fact, it has grown so fast that its developer, the Irvine Co., now expects the project to be completed in 25 years, instead of the 40 it had originally projected.

Recently, Irvine Co. has put on a full-court press by launching a national marketing campaign to lure technology companies from across the country.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 23, 1997 Orange County Edition Business Part D Page 6 Financial Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Irvine Spectrum--Western Financial Bank was incorrectly identified in a graphic published Sunday on the Irvine Spectrum business park.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 23, 1997 Orange County Edition Business Part D Page 6 Financial Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Irvine Spectrum--Western Financial Bank was incorrectly identified in a graphic published Sunday on the Irvine Spectrum business park.

Among its arsenal of promotional material are studies comparing it to well-established technology hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128 "Technology Highway" and the Research Triangle, a three-city area in North Carolina.

In fact, the company brags that its research and development space, or adaptable "flex-space" favored by high-tech firms, rivals or surpasses that of those major technology hubs.

"We're probably the most successful of all of them for doing it as quickly as we did," says Richard Sim, Irvine Co.'s executive vice president.

Yet, many experts say that Irvine Spectrum will never be a national player--mainly because it doesn't need to be.

The Spectrum is a uniquely Southern California phenomenon. The concentration of unassuming beige two-story buildings clustered around the freeways is designed to collect the "gazelles," or fast-growing entrepreneurs, flowing out of the urban core of the L.A. basin.

In fact, most of the Spectrum's entrepreneurs are executives who broke away from large regional firms to start their own companies and needed plentiful land and safe neighborhoods. Other areas of Southern California--Valencia and Chatsworth in Los Angeles County and Thousand Oaks in Ventura County--experienced similar, though much less explosive, growth.

"What you have is the history of high technology in the L.A. region. Companies are moving further and further out," says Allen Scott, associate dean of UCLA's school of public policy.

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Experts say that getting company executives from elsewhere in the country to move to Southern California, with its congested traffic, expensive housing and higher cost of living, is difficult.

"It would take some very good marketing to convince people from the Midwest or the Southeast to come to California, not just Orange County or the Spectrum," says Mark Baldassare, professor of urban planning at UC Irvine.

Instead, he said, the Spectrum's growth spurt is coming from the further expansion of fast-growing local companies and the migration of corporate executives to Orange County's suburban neighborhoods.

And as with so many of Southern California's other newer communities, the Spectrum is a product of careful planning and rigid controls--things that natives have to expect to expect.

Whereas the Spectrum was built by one developer who still controls it, areas like the Research Triangle and Silicon Valley developed over decades, propelled by proximity to research universities and access to cheap land.

Sim of Irvine Co. feels that planning will give the Spectrum the longevity that other business districts lack.

"Hollywood is never going to go anywhere because the infrastructure is in place. Same with Wall Street," Sim says. "That's what we are trying to create in the Irvine Spectrum."

When Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren originally planned the park, he simply saw it as a haven for large headquarters and manufacturing facilities, not a technology center.

The developer was courting only big firms, especially the Japanese companies that were thriving in the heady business climate of the mid-1980s. But a real estate consultant changed his mind.

"They were ignoring the small companies and looking for the big build-to-suits. I said they were leaving out 20% of the market," said Alfred Gobar, who worked with Irvine Co. on its master plan.

Gobar's estimate turned out to be an understatement.

To get the Spectrum off the ground, Irvine Co. pumped more than $227 million into infrastructure, including palm-tree lined streets and the first privately financed freeway cloverleaf.

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To recoup some of its initial investment, it sold land in the new park to developers--something it now refuses to do. Although Irvine Co. managed to lure several firms in at the beginning, its real heyday was in the late 1980s as executives moved into the newer planned communities of south Orange County. Many simply decided they didn't want to fight the traffic of a daily commute to central Orange County or Los Angeles. The Spectrum is close to the John Wayne Airport, and their companies could still attract a large labor pool for manufacturing work.

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