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O.C. Farmland Will Yield to Offices

Land use: Irvine council rezones 604-acre tract for development. Environmentalists call it 'ridiculous,' vow to sue.

May 24, 2001|JANET WILSON and DARYL STRICKLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One of the largest expanses of cropland in Orange County, farmed for more than a century, has been marked for construction of up to 10.2 million square feet of office space.

Despite opposition from environmentalists and a state panel's decision to limit development near the former El Toro Marine base, the Irvine City Council unanimously gave final approval Tuesday for the rezoning of the Irvine Co. land, which eventually will allow for the development of what are now lush, green strawberry and bean fields and nursery and fruit-packing operations.

If the project is built out as envisioned, it would bring more than 16,000 new jobs to Irvine, although 2,200 farm workers would lose their employment. Air pollution, traffic and housing shortage woes would increase, according to environmental studies prepared for the project.

City officials said the benefits of the development, including donated park space and new property taxes, outweigh those impacts.

Primarily, said Mayor Larry Agran, the city will be able to complete an open-space "spine" along Jeffrey Road that will allow residents to walk or bike from one end of town to the other.

"I did feel the development was reasonable," he said.

The rezoning consists of 604 acres of prime agricultural land north of the San Diego Freeway, east of Jeffrey Road, south of Trabuco Road and west of the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on what is now unincorporated county land within Irvine's sphere of influence. The city would annex the land, which would be developed as an extension of the Irvine Spectrum office and industrial area.

Environmentalists said they plan to sue.

"The growth-inducing impacts are mind-boggling," said Bob Caustin of the environmental group Defend the Bay. "Converting this much farmland into massive office space is ridiculous."

The rezoning occurs at a time when vacancy rates for office space are going up in the region and rents are dropping at other office space owned by the Irvine Co.

"There are always going to be vagaries in the market, but this is a logical extension of our Spectrum area," said Mike LeBlanc, the company's senior vice president for entitlements.

Analysts said the company could pace the construction over many years to make it profitable.

"They won't saturate the market," said Mike Dorsey, senior vice president at Cushman Realty. "They'll phase it in at a reasonable level so as to not disrupt their existing product."

Build-out of the area is projected for 2005 in documents submitted to the city--an average of 2.5 million square feet a year. Over the past five years, all developers in Orange County combined have built, on average, 3.5 million square feet a year of office and light industrial space, said Jerry Holdner, vice president at Voit Commercial Brokerage. The Irvine Co. already is negotiating with a major investment firm, Capital Group Cos., which is interested in building new headquarters on 50 acres of the farmland.

Capital Group confirmed that it is negotiating to move part or all of its offices to the site from Brea, where the company employs 1,700 people at one of its five service centers nationwide.

The company, a Los Angeles investment management firm that manages American Funds, one of the largest mutual funds in the country, hopes to move into a custom-designed building by 2004, said spokesman Chuck Freadhoff.

The location of the rezoned area--near an employee base and two major freeways--will help it draw companies from throughout the region, said David Chapman, principal of Pierpoint Advisors, a Newport Beach real estate consulting firm.

The Irvine Co. persuaded a large number of companies to relocate from Los Angeles to the Irvine Spectrum during the 1990s at a time when Orange County's job base was eroding. The Spectrum, one of the largest business parks in Southern California, encompasses more than 40,000 employees and 2,000 businesses.

The development plans will rely on attracting large employers into custom-made buildings on large tracts of land, Chapman said. Current buildings managed by the company tend to have smaller spaces than what the new project would have, analysts said.

"It's more competition for other developers, especially for large-scale projects," Chapman said. "But it's good for the economy as a whole. The more companies attracted to expand here, the more jobs we have and the more wealth that's created."

The Irvine Co. would set aside land for a "linear park," 200 to 335 feet wide, along Jeffrey Road.

But area residents and environmentalists are far from happy.

Caustin of Defend the Bay said his group is preparing a lawsuit over the traffic, air-quality and other issues raised by such a project.

The air-quality impact cannot be lessened, the Irvine Co.'s LeBlanc said, because the entire basin already exceeds air-quality standards.

"There is no project that can mitigate the air-quality impacts, whether it's residential or something such as this," he said.

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