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Donald Bren Shows the Tree Huggers He Has a Heart Too

Orange County | DANA PARSONS

December 02, 2001|DANA PARSONS

Every time I drive down the Pacific Coast Highway south of Corona del Mar and look over at the Newport Coast housing development, I have the same thought:

Yuck.

How could the Irvine Co. do that to such (previously) beautiful seaside bluffs? The muttered response always is the same: blankety-blank development company.

Bite my tongue.

Donald Bren's company, the same people who brought us Fashion Island, the Irvine Spectrum and enough neon and steel to last a lifetime, now has given Orange County something that should last innumerable lifetimes.

For free.

Bren, less public than the swallows at Capistrano, appeared last week at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach (another Irvine Co. project) to announce that the company is designating 11,000 acres as permanent open space. Added to past set-asides, the company now has placed about 50,000 acres off-limits to future development.

That's more than half of the company's vast holdings, which have shaped much of modern-day Orange County.

What's amazing so far is that nobody sees a catch.

Environmentalists, who by nature must constantly be on alert for giant predators like the Irvine Co., last week were cozying up to it.

Bren is, after all, the mogul who long has personified the battle between developers and environmentalists.

Activists once put his likeness on fake bills and called them "develo-dollars."

In the late 1980s, the equivalent of a holy war nearly erupted between the company and Laguna Beach residents opposed to development plans for part of sacrosanct Laguna Canyon.

The never-built Laguna Laurel project proved a bit of a watershed moment when Laguna Beach agreed to buy the land from the Irvine Co.

That time around, of course, the company got paid. This time, Bren has presented a gift.

You'd expect conspiracy theories to abound. The Irvine Co. is not a registered charity.

So far, however, the environmental community largely has cheered as one.

Longtime environmentalist Connie Spenger of Fullerton has kept an eye on the Irvine Co. for years.

"There may be an angle or there may not be, but I think what we're seeing is a creative person who's done something very creative," she says of Bren's announcement. "It's thoughtful and generous."

As one would a wily and powerful foe, Spenger has studied Bren for years.

"I feel like I've been in Orange County side-by-side with the man, and I find him an interesting person," she says.

She saw nothing last week to suggest the open-space gift was anything but that.

"In the cosmic sense, nobody knows, of course," she says with a laugh.

"But it's like if someone gives you a nice present, just say 'Thank you.' You don't say, 'Thank you, but what are you plotting?' "

I'm not on the lookout for conspiracy theories, either. It's probably as easy for an outsider to interpret the workings of the Kremlin as the Irvine Co., but Bren has done this before.

Even as it has been vilified by environmentalists, so too has the Irvine Co. worked with them.

In 1996, the company was hailed for a breakthrough agreement with the federal government in which land was earmarked for future wildlife preservation.

And sure, the company is trying to build public support for a controversial development in East Orange, but a Bren lieutenant said last week the gift isn't a prong in a strategy.

Perhaps my guard is down, but I believe him.

Bren was a home builder before buying the Irvine Co., yet he's never been seen as a one-dimensional, driven developer.

While it may sound funny when talking about a billionaire, a Bren friend once said he cared greatly about his legacy. Then, the comment seemed to focus on the Irvine Co.'s projects.

Now the context broadens.

That part of Bren that loves art and aesthetics surely knows the untouched land is the contribution guaranteed to last. The beauty he hasn't touched far surpasses whatever building he's built.

Nearing the end of his professional life, the 69-year-old captain of industry has made a little peace with the tree huggers.

And without a conspiracy theory in sight.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821; by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; or by e-mail at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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