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Building Appeal : Orange County Designers Seek More People-Friendly Downtowns

Standing at the window of his fifth-floor office in Irvine’s University Town Center, architect David Baab gestures at the clustered high-rise towers across the flat horizon.

Everything that’s good and bad about the architectural and urban development of central Orange County in the past 10 to 15 years can be seen from his office window, Baab said.

“The bad part is that, given an almost completely clean slate to start with, we’ve created a disconnected, strung-out, car-obsessed metropolis populated with bland glass boxes,” he said.

“The good part is that we’re beginning to think hard about the need to create real downtowns where people can work, live, shop and play in a pedestrian-friendly environment.”

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The view from Baab’s window also reveals a surprise: Central Orange County is well on its way to becoming a linear metropolis--a string of high-rise urban centers stretching from Hutton Centre to Newport Center.

This new Southern Californian metropolis, pivoted around John Wayne Airport and the nearby interchange between the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways, rivals Downtown Los Angeles in area of office space and volume of business activity.

But the urbanization of central Orange County has happened so fast its commercial buildings seem to have been designed in a rush, without much concern for subtlety or attempt to develop a distinctive local style.

“We should have had the imagination and the courage to create new city centers that are more than collections of mediocre and anonymous commercial towers,” says former UC Irvine campus architect David Neuman. “We should have taken the wonderful opportunity to create a truly local sense of place.”

Expressionless, boring and anonymous are the epithets most outside critics, and many local designers, apply to the style of the buildings put up in central Orange County in the past 15 years.

Joseph Passoneau, a Washington architect invited to critique Irvine’s urban development by the Mayor’s Institute on City Design in early 1989, described the local scene as “10-story office buildings sitting in the middle of their lots screaming at one another.” He characterized the design of the typical Orange County office building as “schlock, kitsch and terrible.”

Boston architectural critic Robert Campbell added that the architecture in the Irvine Business Complex is “bland and uninteresting.”

The uninspired character of most commercial buildings in central Orange County is illustrated by the poor showing local design makes in the standard architecture guide to Southern California.

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South Coast Metro is dismissed in a brief paragraph, its main attraction being South Coast Plaza, a huge regional shopping mall.

The new Orange County Performing Arts Center has been characterized by critics as “a half citrus ready for squeezing,” notable only as “an upbeat note in Orange County’s ambitions to be more than a cultural wasteland.”

A few Newport Center structures are deemed worthy of mention by the guide, including Fashion Island, which has recently undergone a radical redesign. Only the UC Irvine campus, with its innovative architecture by some of the world’s leading designers, gets major attention from critics. The campus has by far the best collection of modern non-residential architecture in Orange County.

Building on a master plan done by William Pereira in the early ‘60s, campus architect Neuman began a program in the 1980s to commission designs for campus structures by top architects worldwide; UCI’s internal linkages--including walkways, bike paths and landscaping--also were strengthened to give the whole campus the sense of a small city.

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The UCI campus demonstrates that architectural diversity, including even the occasional bizarre or aggressively avant-garde building, makes a city visually stimulating.

The main criticisms delivered by many professional designers about the state of architecture and urban planning in central Orange County may be summarized as follows:

* Individual commercial buildings are not so much ugly as boring and anonymous in design.

* Apart from their common architectural mediocrity, these office towers, hotels and shopping malls are more concerned with asserting their own egos than with combining to create a collective sense of being in a real downtown.

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* At the larger scale of the central Orange County metropolitan region as a whole, there is no commonly shared vision shaping the future of this vigorous and expanding mega-city.

“We should not judge a building by how beautiful it is in isolation, but instead by how much better or worse that particular place has become by its addition,” says Cesar Pelli, the famed New Haven, Conn., architect and a former dean of the Yale School of Architecture. He is designing a 21-story stainless steel office tower in Costa Mesa jointly owned by IBM and C.J. Segerstrom and Sons. “If the city has not gained by the addition, we should seriously question the design and the building itself, no matter how beautiful and theoretically correct it may be.”

Pelli’s appearance on the central Orange County scene is a hopeful sign. That architects of his caliber are winning commissions shows that leading developers in the area have begun to grasp the need to upgrade the level of design of individual buildings.

And they seem willing to grapple with their collective responsibility to build downtowns that create a sense of place for the people who work, visit and live there.

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“We need to develop a real feeling of being downtown in the South Coast Metro complex, with a sensitivity to the man on foot as well as his cousin in the car,” said developer Henry Segerstrom. “To create a real downtown in Costa Mesa, we’ve developed pleasant vistas through parks like our Noguchi Gardens, and overlaid cultural facilities such as the South Coast Repertory and the Orange County Performing Arts Center upon the basic regional shopping center in South Coast Plaza.”

Segerstrom sees the “refinement of architecture,” through the commissioning of top-flight commercial designers, attracting top law and accounting firms and insurance companies that will give South Coast Metro an “international cachet.”

Why is Pelli’s IBM/Segerstrom design superior to that of a typical Orange County high-rise? The crucial difference lies not in their basic shapes, which share the same essential plan, but in the sensitivity Pelli shows in his design’s details and proportions.

The typical glass-box office building common in Orange County reached its height of popularity among developers nationwide in the high-flying 1960s and ‘70s, when speculative structures were thrown up by the hundreds nationwide to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand for space. Their designers felt the anonymous cubes were positive expressions of a Global Village, transcending local, national and international boundaries and idiosyncrasies of style.

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But today, most progressive designers despise these boring boxes and lament their lack of local identity. The trend now is to marry a commercial building to the character of its surroundings. If those surroundings have few interesting characteristics or an established style, the architect attempts to give his high-rise some kind of distinctive look that draws clues from its context in more subtle ways.

“You can’t create a true sense of place if all the high-rises look the same wherever they may be,” Pelli says. “Individuality can’t come out of a packing case.”

The absence of a shared vision or coordinated overall plan in urban Orange County can be traced to several causes:

* The influence and independence of a handful of powerful developers who own large chunks of valuable land and go about their business with little effective control by city agencies.

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* A lack of clear long-range urban planning objectives by the four cities--Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Irvine and Newport Beach--whose jurisdictions cover central Orange County.

* A scarcity of consultation and coordination among these cities, even though they share the common problem of traffic congestion created by the area’s rapid commercial development.

Varying in size from the Irvine Co.'s 64,000-acre holdings to Segerstrom’s 2,240 acres on down to smaller landowners, such as Newport Beach’s Mola Development Corp., local land barons have carved powerful fiefdoms out of the commercial heart of Orange County.

The Irvine Co. has divided up the old Irvine Ranch into districts containing houses, offices, shops, research centers and the UC Irvine campus, all based on architect Pereira’s master plan.

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Pereira’s plan, covering a territory that stretches from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific, is the model shaped the urban form of central Orange County.

The problems with this model are inherent in the patterns of power it reflects and the increasingly outdated suburban concepts upon which it was based.

By developing each chunk of land independently, developers have created inward-looking, isolated projects that do not relate to one another or encourage the kind of pedestrian street life that makes a city’s center worth spending time in during or after working hours.

By rigidly segregating the areas where people live from where they work, the death of downtown after the offices empty in the evening is guaranteed. The frustration of rush-hour gridlock as office workers hurry home becomes a way of life.

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Today, however, “If we don’t want young couples who work in central Orange County to have to go as far out as Riverside to find a place to live they can afford, we must construct much more multiple-housing units, like apartments and condos, closer to the downtowns,” said Dan Heinfeld, president-designate of the Orange County Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

He is the partner in charge of the Orange office of Leason Pomeroy Architects, designers of the $55-million expansion of the John Wayne Airport terminal that will allow the airport to double its annual passenger capacity from 4.75 million to 8.4 million when it is scheduled to open later this year. The enlarged airport is perceived by planners as a key piece of the puzzle spurring surrounding cities to coordinate their development strategies, including initiatives designed to integrate residential and commercial developments into a more urban scenario.

On March 22, the Costa Mesa City Council considered an Urban Center Mixed Use draft ordinance to encourage developers to build projects with housing--mostly rental apartments and condos--among the shops and offices in South Coast Metro.

Across the Costa Mesa Freeway, east of John Wayne Airport, the Irvine Business Complex, South Coast Metro’s rival for the role of central Orange County’s major urban focus, is also developing a strategy for the creation of a true downtown.

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A draft plan under consideration by the City of Irvine proposes an “Urban Village Concept” for the business center, which is divided by the San Diego Freeway. The report proposes that Von Karman Avenue be the village’s “Great Street.” Spanning the freeway, served by an elevated monorail, lined with shops and restaurants, the Von Karman corridor would be Irvine’s grand boulevard where residents gather to stroll, eat leisurely meals, watch their fellows passing by and enjoy the urbanities of metropolitan life.

But opponents of the urban village concept, such as former Irvine City Councilman Ray Catalano, dismiss it as “an architect’s dream.”

There are other signs of change in Orange County. In pursuit of common public purposes, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Newport Beach and Santa Ana recently have formed an informal consortium to deal with shared problems arising from development around the airport.

Ron Nestor of Costa Mesa-based architects McLarand Vasquez & Partners Inc. hopes the group’s meetings signal that central Orange County planners have begun to “grasp the concept that the entire urban fabric must be knitted together if we’re ever to create a real city.”

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