Irvine's new Jeffrey Open Space Trail traces 500 years of history

Northeast Irvine can ring in the new year with new segments of an outdoor trail that offer a stroll through 500 years of local history.

The Jeffrey Open Space Trail is now a 3.5-mile stretch of planned open space running east to west along Jeffrey Road from Portola Parkway to the 5 Freeway. The $30-million project consists of 76 acres of linear space developed and gifted to the city by The Irvine Co.

"This is a broad trail that really functions as a walking outdoor museum," said Irvine Co. spokesman Mike Lyster during a recent tour. "We're extremely proud of this. It's been a labor of love to work with the city on the design and then to actually build this out."

A formal dedication is scheduled for Jan. 10, although hikers, bikers, runners and strollers have been using the trail since November.

The 11-foot wide paved walkway with adjacent crushed granite paths winds through meadows and woodsy greenbelts. Three metal footbridges and two stacked-stone tunnels allow pedestrians uninterrupted access along the entire length of the trail.

The continuous path is divided into three parts, with landmark displays offering historical context dating to the early 16th century. A fourth segment is in the planning stages.

The first segment, which starts at Portola Parkway, features a timeline beginning in 1510, when the first Spanish explorers landed and occupied the area, which was already inhabited by native tribes. Several fixed concrete and tile mosaic landmarks illustrate the history through Mexican settlement and up to California statehood in 1850.

The second segment celebrates the period of the Irvine Ranch beginning with James Irvine's acquisition of the land in the 1870s. Nearly a century of growth — depicted in engraved concrete panels and mosaic benches — covers railroad expansion, the growth of the citrus industry, introduction of flight and the establishment of towns, schools and local government. Wooden beams from the main ranch packinghouse remain where the heart of the agricultural operation once stood.

Etched metal markers extend along the third segment roughly a mile from the 5 Freeway to Trabuco Road., They depict the modern Irvine from the latter part of the 20th century to the present.

The older second segment opened in 2005 with the development of the adjacent Woodbridge neighborhood. Segments one and three are opening with the completion of the Cypress Village and Village of Stonegate neighborhoods, respectively. The new trail features several access points from all three Irvine Co. developments as well as pedestrian access from Jeffrey Road.

"The ability to connect all these varied and interesting open space pieces holistically together and join them with the surrounding land use to have something as a whole was much bigger than the individual parts," said the project's landscape architect, Richard Roy.

He said the design concept was inspired by the 19th century work of Frederick Law Olmstead, considered the father of American landscape architecture. His credits include New York's Central Park and pieces of Boston's Emerald Necklace parks system.

The stone tunnels, light fixtures and open lawn space along the trail are particularly reminiscent of Olmsted's world-famous park in the heart of Manhattan.

A fourth segment of the trail is in the planning stages and will be tied to future development east of Portola Parkway. It is projected to open by 2020 and will focus on a prehistoric look at the land.

"Over the years of development activity, we've accumulated many artifacts," Roy said. "We have a good idea about what this was before the Native Americans were here."

The Jan. 10 formal dedication begins at 10 a.m. and will feature a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Irvine Mayor Steven Choi, health and wellness and retail exhibits, and a family-friendly scavenger hunt for children.

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