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Donald Bren accepts award, reflects on Irvine Co.'s history

Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren makes a public appearance to receive the Urban Land Institute's first Vanguard Award.

October 28, 2011|By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times
  • Fulfilling the vision of the Irvine Ranch master plan has been a lifetime dedication and a lifetime passion, Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren says.
Fulfilling the vision of the Irvine Ranch master plan has been a lifetime… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren made a rare public appearance Thursday as he came before a respected real estate trade group at the Los Angeles Convention Center to accept an award, reminisce and grouse a bit about an old antagonist.

Bren, who became Southern California's wealthiest man in the process of turning the Irvine Ranch in Orange County into a planned community, was feted by the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based think tank and trade organization. About 7,000 members are attending the international group's fall meeting in Los Angeles, and many of them crowded into a meeting hall to see the elusive billionaire in the flesh.

Known for keen attention to details and his management of nearly every aspect of Irvine Co., Bren stayed in character onstage in a controlled appearance that left little to chance.

Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso, who serves on Irvine Co.'s board of directors, presented Bren with the institute's first Vanguard Award, calling Bren "one of the most consequential developers in American history." Bren successfully melded residential, shopping, office and industrial development into a cohesive community that is emulated by others around the world, Caruso said.

Bren lauded the late architect and planner William Pereira and others who helped him turn two historic California ranchos from farmland into a thriving suburban community starting in the 1970s. "Fulfilling the vision of the Irvine Ranch master plan has been a lifetime dedication and a lifetime passion," he said.

After accepting his award, Bren sat down for a discussion with Stan Ross, a legendary commercial real estate accountant who is now chairman of the board of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate and also serves on Irvine Co.'s board of directors.

When Ross asked whether Irvine could be duplicated in other parts of the country, Bren demurred. Irvine started with 93,000 acres on the California coast between the metropolitan hubs of Los Angeles and San Diego in a part of the country with exquisite Mediterranean weather, giving it an advantage others are unlikely to acquire, he said. But also significantly, government and environmental regulations have become so overwhelming that they are now nearly insurmountable for large-scale projects, he said.

Warming to the topic of regulation, Bren teed off on the California Coastal Commission, which he said helped drag out development of Irvine Co.'s Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Coast for nearly three decades. The development had to answer a series of commission concerns including water runoff from the resort's golf courses and preservation of coastal sagebrush, kangaroo rats and gnatcatcher birds. It turned out that there were more than 10 million gnatcatchers in Mexico, Bren said, "so they are not an unusual item."

The commission's concerns were finally resolved, and the hotel opened in 2009. Widely considered one of the most luxurious resorts in the country, Pelican Hill has the flavor of a seaside Italian village with a look influenced by the style of Andrea Palladio, a 16th century Renaissance architect whom Bren described Thursday as one of the people he most admires and "the greatest architect who ever lived."

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