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Fluor's Move Will Leave a Big Hole to Fill at Irvine's Park Place Complex

Offices: Property managers will face a 600,000-square-foot vacancy, but it may come at the right time for Orange County.


The postmodern complex that dominates the horizon along the San Diego Freeway in Irvine officially is known as Park Place Office Campus. But for the last 23 years, the project--an Orange County landmark--has been home to its first Fortune 500 company, Fluor Corp.

The rectangular glass buildings and tower have become so well-linked with the nation's largest engineering and construction firm that many think of the site simply as "the Fluor building."

But after more than two decades as Park Place's most visible tenant, Fluor is leaving at month's end for a campus-style complex in nearby Aliso Viejo. Left behind will be a crater-sized hole in the heart of Orange County, about 600,000 square feet of space. It is the single-largest vacancy ever to hit the market here.

Faced with the equivalent of leasing a 24-story tower--which would be taller than any building in Orange County--Janine Padia, head of Park Place's leasing for Winthrop Management, is confronted with a massive task.

But the opening may be coming at an opportune time. The region's vigorous economy has created the strongest demand for office space in years. At the end of 1998, the county's vacancy rate was 8.4, the lowest since Grubb & Ellis Inc. began tracking the office market in 1984.

"If we kept it leased when things were so bad, hopefully we can keep it leased when times are good," said Padia, whose employer manages and partly owns the sprawling complex.

Completed in 1981, Park Place is spread over more than 100 acres. It consists of 1.8 million square feet, including six four-story buildings, a 10-story tower, and single-story offices, with a concourse that connects the structures.

As in many campus projects, Park Place features attractive gardens and fountains. But it also contains the amenities found in high-rises, such as a dry cleaners, florist and travel agency.

Its hallways gently curve like rivers, flowing into a 1,500-seat cafeteria, a full-service restaurant and a 120-seat auditorium. Across the parking lot are a dozen eateries and a 10-screen movie theater.

The building's futuristic look--in particular, a mushroom-shaped steel and glass tower and Tinkertoy-shaped structures that house the complexes' mammoth heating and air conditioning system--has caught the eye of motorists and filmmakers alike. The main office complex has been a backdrop to films such as "Demolition Man" and "Defending Your Life."

But the complex's greatest strength--its size--also is its greatest drawback. In the low-rise buildings, each floor is almost an acre wide, nearly as large as a football field. They were designed to accommodate large office users such as call centers, insurance carriers and health-care providers, which require row after row of cubicles.

As a result, the site appeals to relatively few. The floors can be divided into 20,000-square-foot units, nearly the same as a typical high rise, but corner offices cannot be created with the prestige of vertical structures.

Moreover, a company's presence can be overwhelmed by the project's sheer size. Some sides of the buildings draw less sunlight than do newer competitors. And getting in and out of the nearly 6,000 parking spaces, especially around lunchtime, can be time-consuming.

But brokers consider the property a relative bargain at a monthly rate of $1.85 per square foot, which includes utilities and other fees. That's at least 40% less than the average price for similarly priced properties in Orange County's airport area, according to a Grubb & Ellis first-quarter market report. Some brokers said the Fluor space will help slow down rental appreciation in the area.

"They'll appeal to the price-sensitive user rather than the image-sensitive user," said Al Masters, a vice president at CB Richard Ellis Inc. in Newport Beach.

Located in the shadow of John Wayne Airport, Park Place is surrounded by a building boom.

More than 2.5 million square feet of new office space is under construction in Orange County--the equivalent of more than seven buildings the size of Taco Bell's headquarters in Irvine--and nearly 7 million more square feet is in the planning stages, according to Grubb & Ellis. Two new office towers, the first in almost a decade, are expected to be completed this year near the airport.

Half of the county's office space is in the airport area--about 26.3 million square feet overall--enough to dwarf downtown Seattle.

The current market is driven by corporate expansion within Orange County, and to some extent by companies from elsewhere moving into the county, brokers say. That contrasts with the go-go 1980s, when projects were developed into monuments to match developers' egos largely because financing was available, rather than a real need for space. At the peak, brokers were trying to fill 3 million square feet as new high-rises were rapidly built.

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