Changing a 'Master Plan'

I read with delight Cathy Curtis' article on architecture in Orange County ("A Non-Walk Through World of Orange County Architecture," Aug. 12). As I have recently moved to Irvine from the East Coast, her article hits many of my concerns about the failure of architecture in my city and surrounding communities. However, she misses some critical issues that might highlight why little change is likely to occur even if we can easily recognize the cause.

Irvine represents a growing number of communities that are "master planned" by developers rather than by public entities. Developers, as is their right and interest, seek to maximize the return on their investment. That concern has little to do with the quality of pedestrian life and much more to do with ensuring that shopping areas are under their control.

These cities' general plans are documents that simply ratify the decisions of private organizations. Planning agencies do not plan in the sense that they determine how development should proceed or its quality, but simply ratify what developers want and process their plans. We as citizens have not demanded that our planning representatives set standards that provide for interesting street-scapes and opportunities for "an environment peppered with diverse sights, sounds and smells."

By ceding to developers' decisions about life on the street, we are at the mercy of organizations, such as the Irvine Co., that set such high requirements for a return on their investment that small businesses can only succeed in areas with high traffic volumes. Such traffic is achieved by shopping centers located in areas that are accessible to consumers from beyond the immediate neighborhood, thereby ensuring reliance on cars rather than foot or bicycle.

Few, if any, of Irvine's shopping districts are within walking distance of its residents. Those residents who do manage to walk or bike have to brave huge parking lots designed to handle cars rather than people on foot.

Irvine's industrial and office districts are no better at providing pedestrian access. While developers are doing what they do best--creating environments that maximize their profits--we should also look at ourselves.

Irvine, like other new communities in South County and elsewhere, defines itself as a contrast to Los Angeles, which for many Irvine residents conjures images tinged by trepidation. They fear public streets where they are not sure of what they will see, hear and smell. They are sure that public spaces will surprise them into confronting poverty, homelessness and muggings.

To avoid surprise and fear, Irvine's built environment has left little public space around its streets beyond the median strips, parks and bike trails. Everything else is privatized. By setting the price of admission through residency high enough to keep out what they consider potentially scary people, they can go about their lives enjoying the private pools and playgrounds feeling good about their personal safety and the security of their residences. They enforce homogeneity to banish their fears.

Irvine residents don't seem inclined to assert a public interest in planning our public spaces. As much as I would like to be a part of a vibrant community that truly celebrates diversity in its people as well as its paint colors, I don't expect it to happen unless we as a community demand something different.



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