University Park, Irvine's first 'village,' celebrates 50 years

When the first residents moved into Irvine's University Park neighborhood, families lived near thousands of acres of asparagus, strawberries and oranges and had to go all the way to Newport Beach's Fashion Island to catch a movie at the theater.

People would bike two miles to the Tick Tock convenience store to buy a quart of milk and a loaf of bread.

Irvine, in fact, wouldn't be declared a city for five more years.

University Park is the first "village" the Irvine Co. developed in what would become the city of Irvine. The neighborhood is south of the 405 Freeway and bordered by Culver and University drives and Yale Avenue.

Some residents have been there since the community opened in 1966 and plan to be there to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a lineup of picnics and parties this weekend.

Original resident Sharon Toji, 80, began spearheading plans for the event a few years ago when she was casually chatting with other residents about having an anniversary celebration for the village.

The idea was driven further after she made a Facebook page dedicated to the community and saw many people reminisce about the neighborhood online.

She thought, "Well, we better get started."

A family picnic will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at University Community Park with Thrifty ice cream for 10 cents a scoop, games on the lawn, face painting, food trucks, balloon animals and a parade in which residents can march alongside signs showing the year they moved to Irvine.

A "Dogs of Irvine" parade is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, and a photo and art exhibit in the park's community center will be open from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The park is next to the University Park Library, 4512 Sandburg Way.

The celebration will conclude with an Irvine Kiwanis all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast from 9 to 11 a.m. Sunday at the park. The photo and art exhibit will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.

Toji and her first husband, Guy Sircello — who died in 1992 — bought their house in University Park 50 years ago for $25,000. They moved in with their six children. Toji was pregnant with their seventh.

Today, the home is worth almost $800,000, according to the Zillow website.

"You could see the shape of how things were going to be, but you couldn't see what it would look like in 50 years," Toji said of the village. "It's like you had a palette of colors but didn't have a painting of what the community would become."

Toji and her family moved to Irvine from Portland, Ore., when her husband got a job as a professor at UC Irvine, which was officially established the year before.

According to Irvine Historical Society President Ellen Bell, the opening of UCI became a major impetus for the development of surrounding neighborhoods.

"[Irvine master plan designer] William Pereira was passionate about building a university where the idea was to have a city built around it," Bell said. "'A city of intellect,' they called it. Irvine Ranch was on a chunk of prime land in Orange County, and to keep that as purely agricultural was not feasible."

Most people used Culver Drive to get to places, since the 405 Freeway had not yet been built.

Rather, there was a ranch where cowboys were driving cattle, Toji said.

"It's important to understand what a leap of faith these people where taking by moving there," Bell said. "It was out in the middle of nowhere, but that was part of the charm."

Marilyn Vassos, 80 – who moved to University Park from Costa Mesa with her husband, Angelo, and their two daughters on April 1, 1966 – remembers when Culver was a two-lane road.

Vassos said she would have loved to live by the ocean but that it was more important for each of her two daughters to have her own room in a bigger house.

University Park had that ideal home, where Vassos' children would store a chest of dress-up clothes and put on plays for the family in the living room.

The family bought the house for $23,000. Marilyn and Angelo still live there.

"It still has good bones and nice neighbors," Marilyn said.

During Irvine's more rural age, many children spent time outside, according to Bell.

"What people have told me, some of the early residents, is that a lot of what they would do is go out and play," Bell said. "They went out to skateboard or to the orange groves. Adventure Playground [in University Park] was a place where they could build forts and play with old tires. There was an [ice cream shop] in University Park Center, a place where some kids had their first jobs."

Warm days were spent at the village's Pavilion Pool, where neighbors put on Beach Boys music and danced up a storm, Toji said.

Former village residents are expected to fly in from as far away as Georgia and Hawaii for the University Park celebration this weekend.

Toji said she and her neighbors will be happy to look back on the history of the place they call home.

"It was a barren place with 250 houses and tiny trees that looked like spindles," Toji said. "Now we have beautiful 50-year-old trees."