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Costa Mesa Is Growing Up

In the next few years, two skyscrapers will join the area skyline. But demand for office space may ensure they aren't the city's last.

November 05, 2002|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

It might not seem like much of a skyline to those partial to the towering masterpieces of New York and Chicago.

But the subtle, sharp and slightly futuristic buildings near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa belong to what planners call one of the country's most sought-after office environments. They offer a dose of urban sophistication, without being too urban.

That skyline is about to change. Two sleek suburban skyscrapers worthy of an appearance in the science-fiction thriller "Minority Report" are planned to rise from the sprawl in the next few years. They are the last two such buildings that can be built in the area under Costa Mesa's general plan.

Across Bristol Street from the mall is a popular location because executives get the prestige of being in a "skyscraper" -- though the tallest is just 21 stories high -- without having to ride public transportation or set foot on a sidewalk.

Planners nationwide say the towers have helped make the business district from John Wayne Airport to South Coast Plaza the country's largest "edge city" -- a designation that applies to bustling centers of the office economy that have been sprouting in U.S. suburbs over the last few decades. In some cases, edge cities have attracted more business than the nation's major urban centers.

The last time ground was broken on one of Costa Mesa's towering monuments was in the early 1990s. A slumping commercial real estate market in the decade that followed encouraged developers to shift toward more efficient low-rises.

Today, because land is increasingly scarce and expensive, the only way to go is up.

The next skyscraper will likely be the 18-story tower that Commonwealth Partners plans to build at Anton Boulevard and Bristol Street. The plans, approved by city officials in October, call for a modern tower that will add 400,000 square feet of office space to the area, along with a five-story garage. Work is scheduled to start in the coming months, beginning with the demolition of an Edwards movie theater at the site.

A block up Bristol, where the street meets Sunflower Avenue, C.J. Segerstrom & Sons plans to demolish the Sumitomo Bank to build a 21-story tower. The blueprints for that project are not complete, but company officials say they have hired the firm of modernist architect Helmut Jahn to draft them.

Jahn is known for his eclectic, futuristic style. Among his works are Kemper Arena in Kansas City, built with an exoskeleton of giant trusses, and the Sony Center in Berlin, which is covered by a "crown" of steel cable, fiberglass membrane and glass. A recent article in Architecture Week described Jahn as pushing "the limits of glazing technology, environmental systems and urban place-making."

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Growth Was a Surprise

It's not only real-estate executives who are buzzing about the plans for the buildings.

Academics are taking note, too.

"You have as much office space in and around Costa Mesa now as you do in downtown Dallas or Atlanta," said Robert Lang, author of "Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis," to be released in January by Brookings Institution Press. "This place did not begin as a big city, but there were seeds planted as [South Coast Plaza] got built in the 1960s and 1970s, and its growth caught everyone by surprise."

The South Coast Metro area of Costa Mesa and nearby high-rises around John Wayne Airport dwarf the much larger and more urban cities such as Anaheim and Santa Ana when it comes to office space. It actually makes up the biggest edge city in the country, according to Lang's research.

But why Costa Mesa?

Industry analysts say it started with executives living along the coast and in other tony neighborhoods looking to open offices in the county to reduce their commutes. That was about the time that South Coast Plaza was being built, and developers of the mall zoned large parcels nearby for business parks.

"They couldn't afford to have honky-tonk versions of their mall sprout around them while they are trying to sell space to places like Nordstrom, so they cleared the space around them for offices," Lang said.

Segerstrom then opted to invest in top-of-the-line high-rise construction for that space, including dining clubs, spas and penthouse office suites with expansive views toward the ocean. They were luxuries few other Orange County cities were providing.

Top firms seeking a prestigious location eagerly signed leases.

"It's the way Century City used to be," said Alfred Gobar, an Orange County real estate economist. "You've got a lot of nice restaurants. All the other prestigious guys are nearby. And everybody drives Porsches.

"You can say I'm in the big building with whatever," he said. "It's great for the egos of these guys."

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Costs Push Up Rents

Gobar himself is not a big fan of high-rises. He says the cost of putting in parking structures, elevators and all the associated engineering with building up forces rents to rise significantly.

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