Developer's $1-billion plan for old O.C. Register site envisions a 'mini urban city'

Two years ago, developer Mike Harrah joined a bid to purchase the Orange County Register out of bankruptcy.

The effort ultimately failed. But the flamboyant local construction magnate with a ZZ Top beard still acquired the Register’s Santa Ana real estate, currently vacant after the publication decamped to Anaheim this spring.

With the Register gone, Harrah is now embarking on an ambitious $1-billion plan for the 20-acre Grand Avenue site, proposing to build Orange County’s tallest buildings, more than 1,000 residences, a 171-room hotel, offices and retail shops.

In all, Harrah’s Caribou Industries envisions a 2.3-million-square-foot development known as 625IVE that serves as a gateway to historic downtown Santa Ana, where hip restaurants and shops are opening just a mile away. And he’s signed up prominent architecture firm Gensler to work on it.

Harrah, himself, has been credited with helping kick-start the revitalization early last decade after he acquired buildings in the district and filled them with art galleries, a performing arts center, restaurants and more.

His new plan features high-rises, a mixture of apartments and condos, as well as a conversion of the printing plant into so-called creative offices, possibly for tech companies. Two towers — with some mix of apartments, a hotel, offices and retail — would stand at 493 feet, making them the tallest buildings in the county.

There would also be smaller residential buildings and a 20-story office tower. The five-story, orange-colored Register headquarters building will remain as offices, and in total there will be nearly 44,000 square feet of shops.

“It will be a mini urban city within itself,” boasts Harrah, describing the project as “the biggest one in the history of Orange County.”

That, of course, depends on how a single project is defined, as multiple developments in the county built out over decades are significantly larger, including the Irvine Spectrum Center, where the Irvine Co. has more than 7 million square feet of office space.

But Harrah says he hopes to finish 625IVE within five years, and he likens the project to an urban redevelopment more akin to those going up in downtown Los Angeles, rather than a typical large Orange County development built on open space.

If Harrah can construct 625IVE in such a short time frame, Lars Platt, senior managing director for Cushman & Wakefield’s Orange County office, agreed it would be the largest of its type in the county.

But he doubts the project as proposed will be completed.

Large mixed-use developments in sought-after Irvine, including the Spectrum and Park Place, have taken decades to build, he noted. And Platt described the area surrounding the Register site as sleepy and blighted.

“Unlike the area Mike is building, the Spectrum is surrounded by the most desired housing ... in all of housing of Orange County,” he said. “I would be very, very, very surprised if any prospective construction lender would seriously consider that redevelopment of the [Register] project.”

Others are more bullish.

Kurt Strasmann, senior managing director of CBRE Group Inc.’s Orange County Region, called the project massive, but doable. He noted that the local economy and apartment and office markets are hot. And unlike Platt, he called the location desirable for companies, given its proximity to the 5 Freeway.

“It’s not an easy feat for anyone in any circumstance” to finance such a large project, he said. “[But] can they do it? You bet.”

A major pitch Caribou is making is the opportunity to have a creative office campus near a downtown and public transit.

A pedestrian bridge, for example, is planned over Grand Avenue, linking the development to the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, where Amtrak and Metrolink trains stop, in addition to buses. The center is also a planned terminus for the proposed OC Streetcar that, if built, will connect Santa Ana and Garden Grove.

Care is being taken to preserve the history of the O.C. Register, including exploring ways to keep portions of the printing press when that building is redeveloped into offices, said Jim Young, an architect who is leading the design team for Gensler, which has designed the Metropolis mega-development in downtown L.A. and the MLS soccer stadium under construction in Exposition Park.

“The idea is to respect what is there,” Young said of the Register development. “There is so much history with the O.C.R.”

Harrah said the project will be built out in four phases, the last being the twin 37-story towers. He said the development will be financed through debt and equity investors, some of which have been lined up.

The old Register headquarters building at 625 Grand Ave. is already available for lease and Caribou is working with the city on gaining needed approvals for the larger project, according to Robert Duncan, senior development partner with Caribou.

Alma Flores, a spokeswoman with the city of Santa Ana, said Caribou hasn’t yet submitted a development proposal and the project would need “at a minimum” a zone change and general plan amendment.

Harrah has made big boasts before that have failed to materialize.

For more than a decade, he has tried to build One Broadway Plaza, a 37-story office tower less than two miles from the Register site. The planned 493-foot building would be the same height as the tallest buildings proposed for the Register site but a city referendum, lawsuits and the recession delayed construction.

Amid the economic recovery, Harrah has given reporters multiple ground-breaking dates, only to have them pass with no action.

Harrah told The Times this week that he finally broke ground two months ago and is constructing the building’s foundation. And he said he is in negotiations with an unnamed tenant who would take the entire building, which he expects will be completed in about two and a half years.

Flores, the city spokeswoman, said the only permitted work for One Broadway Plaza so far is a partial foundation.

Harrah first acquired land at the Register location in 2014 when he purchased the paper’s headquarters building and leased it back to the struggling paper.

When Register owner Freedom Communications declared bankruptcy a year later, the company’s chief executive and other insiders joined with Harrah to purchase the company. Their bid, and a competing offer from the Los Angeles Times, lost out to Digital First Media, which also owns the Los Angeles Daily News and Daily Breeze in Torrance.

Digital First then sold the rest of the Register land to Harrah for a reported $34 million, and the newspaper moved to Anaheim in April.

Strasmann of CBRE Group called Harrah’s five-year timeline doable as long as the first phases lease well and there isn’t a recession. If Harrah succeeds, the project would revitalize the surrounding area.

“It’s a big win for everyone if this thing comes together,” he said.

andrew.khouri@latimes.com

Follow me @khouriandrew on Twitter

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