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Pricey Irvine Co. Project Defying Slump

Housing: Plenty of space per residence is a major reason sales of Shady Canyon homes have been brisk.


The Shady Canyon area of Irvine, the new Irvine Co. project featuring some of the priciest homes away from the ocean, is defying the odds.

Despite a sluggish economy that has caused luxury-home sales to slump nationwide, and a public launch just days after Sept. 11, sales have been brisk for custom home sites that are beginning to dot Shady Canyon's rocky terrain and rolling hills.

Since late September, 18 semi-custom villas have been sold for $1.5 million to $2 million each. In addition, several dozen parcels for custom homes have been purchased that cost between $600,000 and $2.7 million.

Retired baseball slugger Mark McGwire, an Orange County resident, bought a double lot on a bluff top that offers a sweeping view of the community's private 300-acre golf course and the San Joaquin Hills. On the same street, another buyer is putting up a Tuscan-style farmhouse--an 11,000-square-foot mansion with seven suites and a private amphitheater--for $10 million, the most expensive home in the area.

The lure? The development offers roomy parcels--at least half an acre per home--at a time when even million-dollar homes are being built so close together in the region that some of them resemble row houses.

At Shady Canyon, Irvine Co. envisions a gated enclave of roughly 400 estates to be built across nearly 1,100 acres. Much of the area's natural habitat will be preserved, and the developer is betting that people will be drawn by the wide-open spaces in a metropolitan setting. Shady Canyon is a short commute to the Irvine Spectrum business and entertainment park and offices around John Wayne Airport.

"I think people have been waiting a long time for a home site that's close to Newport Beach, close to South Coast Plaza, but gives them this kind of space," said Chris Valli, a broker at Coast Newport Properties in Newport Beach. He has sold four sites in the community and has another sale pending.

The brisk demand at Shady Canyon is running counter to many other projects for high-end homes. Through November, overall sales of new homes priced at $1 million or higher have fallen 34% from a year ago in Orange County, according to Meyers Group, an Irvine real estate research firm. In Los Angeles County, a smaller market for new luxury homes, sales have been fairly flat.

Officials at Irvine Co., one of a few companies nationwide creating such low-density communities in metro areas, have been surprised by the reaction, given the timing of the development. Indeed, Chairman Donald Bren and other top executives considered postponing Shady Canyon's first public tours scheduled for the next two weekends after Sept. 11. More than 1,000 people came to the showings.

"We took a risk that the world was not coming to an end," said Joseph Davis, who heads the home-development arm of Irvine Co. "We've been fortunate that consumers have demonstrated support for it."

Among them are Mike and Laura Meisenbach. This month, the couple, both 40, are set to move into a two-story, 5,000-square-foot home amid a cluster of high-end homes in Newport Beach. But after visiting Shady Canyon three times, they purchased a half-acre parcel and plan to build a U-shaped home around a swimming pool. When the custom home is ready, probably in late 2003 or early 2004, they plan to sell their Newport Beach house.

Like the Meisenbachs, most of Shady Canyon's buyers are affluent Orange County residents who have lived shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors.

"Our biggest thing is that we really wanted a feeling of open space," said Mike Meisenbach, a commercial real estate broker in Orange County. "I don't like looking at other houses and feeling like I'm right on top of someone."

Buyers like the Meisenbachs have made believers of home builders, too.

Taylor Woodrow Homes of Irvine already has sold 18 of its two-dozen Shady Canyon homes since late September, and expects two more to be bought soon, leaving only model units, said Vice President Barbara Stowers.

She said the sales pace has exceeded the builder's other high-end developments in San Diego and Orange counties. Now, Stowers said, Taylor Woodrow is negotiating with Irvine Co. to buy up to 20 more vacant lots in Shady Canyon.

"There has been no hesitancy on the part of buyers," she said.

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