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An Evolving Identity : Neighborhoods: The distinctions of Irvine’s individual villages have become sharper over the years.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unless you’ve been to the Improvisation near UC Irvine recently, it’s probably been a while since you’ve heard an Irvine joke. But show up for the late show some weekend night when the crowd is loose and the comic thinks he can get away with it, and you’ll hear some of the old zingers resurrected or updated.

McCity. Plain wrap. Levittown in earth tones.

That’s the perception: that even before the first foundation was laid, Irvine was destined to become a vast landscape of cookie-cutter homes, precisely planned, precisely executed, precisely controlled. A community without caste or distinction or definable social order. A city so generic that it ought to have a light blue band around it.

It’s good joke fodder. But more than two decades of evolution show that it’s only partially true. Irvine certainly was carefully planned, and the rigidity of its regulations continue to be legend. But the distinctions of many of its individual neighborhoods have become sharper over the years, as residents have identified themselves most closely with the village in which they live, and not with the city itself.

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“The village concept has attracted a lot of people from Day One,” said Irvine City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr. “The first thing that people will say to me is not that they’re from Irvine, but that they’re from Woodbridge or Turtle Rock. It’s kind of like a clique or a name they drop, and it holds a lot of stock with a lot of people.”

This “village concept,” said Brady, was a calculated move by original Irvine planners. The idea, he said, was to be able to offer potential buyers a kind of smorgasbord of economic choices, with price lines being drawn loosely along neighborhood lines. In the beginning, he said, the differences were fairly stark.

“When we first became a city,” said Brady, “there was a real Mason-Dixon line between the south part of the city and the north. The area between the two freeways wasn’t filled in like it is today.”

In particular, the more moderately priced “entry level” homes in the villages of Northwood, El Camino Real, Windwood and Walnut Village in the north contrasted with the more lavish custom homes in the southern village of Turtle Rock, still considered to be first-cabin real estate.

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Still, there was nothing in the original master plan to suggest that each village would be drawn on absolute economic lines, said Irvine Co. Vice Chairman Ray Watson, who became the first planner for the company in 1960.

“What we tried to do with each village is to make them different,” he said. “Whether that attracted different people that you could put into any kind of sociological package, I’m not sure.

“There was no economic hierarchy. We didn’t want the villages to be pure clones of each other. Generally, we didn’t say Turtle Rock will be the high end, Woodbridge will be the middle and something else will be the low end.”

In part, however, it appears to have worked out that way over the years. The older neighborhoods to the north--those contained in the village of El Camino Real are good examples--are distinctly on the lower end of the home-buying economic spectrum.

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Contrasted with newer developments elsewhere in the city, the houses appear stylistically dated, and many homeowners there have taken advantage of the lack of mandatory community association restrictions and remodeled.

(In other villages, codes, covenants and restrictions that govern remodeling and other visual aspects of the neighborhoods are often rigorously enforced by homeowners’ associations to which all residents must belong.)

Turtle Rock, the southernmost village in the city, traditionally has been considered the “rich” neighborhood. The presence of many million-dollar custom homes, the availability of panoramic views from the heights and the particular difficulty of construction on hillsides have combined to make Turtle Rock the priciest ticket in town.

“In the beginning, you could more or less pick out the hierarchy of neighborhoods, but that’s not much the case anymore--with the exception of the top-of-the-hill sites in Turtle Rock, where they were allowing custom houses to be built,” said Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan, who is also a real estate agent.

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The original differences between north and south have been blunted somewhat by what might be called the buffer community of Woodbridge, a village Irvine veterans point to when they need an example of broad diversity to refute the cookie-cutter argument.

The largest village in the city--and the largest planned community in history with a population of about 26,000--Woodbridge is “the grand experiment of all time,” said Sheridan, who is a Woodbridge resident.

“There are all breakdowns of socioeconomic levels there,” she said. “That was what was intended, and it works very well. You can find an entry-level home, apartment complexes, subsidized housing, and still find the very, very expensive $800,000 homes near the water.” (Woodbridge has two large man-made lakes.)

There is, however, a common theme in Woodbridge, and, in fact, in every village in Irvine: the family.

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“Everything we did was geared toward the family,” said Watson.

That meant a calculated push toward an ethic based on a kind of dependability and consistency, if not outright sameness.

“People who move to Irvine are more interested in the amenities,” Sheridan said. “The houses are not as magnificent as something you could get in Newport Beach or Nellie Gail. People move to Irvine for the lifestyle--for the recreation, the schools, the bike trails, the accessibility to their work. It’s a planned community and people can say, ‘It’s consistent. I can depend on it.’ ”

For that reason, she said, she has handled many Irvine clients over the years who, when they were able to move up to a more expensive home, decided to make the move within the city rather than buy elsewhere.

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“That’s very definitely common,” said Brady. “There are families that have moved three to five times. They’ll maybe start at University Park and move to, say, Turtle Rock or to one of the more expensive homes at Woodbridge or Northwood.”

Sheridan said that the village hoppers make up “probably the majority of my clientele. They’ll start in Northwood and march toward the ocean.”

Moving to a more expensive neighborhood doesn’t necessarily equate with social climbing in Irvine, said Sheridan. There is “no real social cachet” attached to living in, say, Turtle Rock as opposed to University Park.

“It’s more of a perception than a reality,” she said. “The more social people move from Irvine to Newport Beach, and people move from Newport to Irvine if they’re very child-oriented.”

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Also, said Roger Seitz, Irvine Co. vice president of urban planning and design, some of the frequent movers simply like change.

“There are some people who like to be in on the newest and the latest,” he said. “There’s movement around the villages to go to newer areas, newer units. It has less to do with economics than it has to do with sort of being in the advance guard.”

Bill Kunzman and his wife, Claudette, liked that idea, back in 1976. Before the couple married, Claudette lived in a house in the village of El Camino Real. Bill said she wanted to remain in Irvine, and he agreed (he was living in Placentia at the time). New homes in Woodbridge had just been made available through a lottery, and the Kunzmans signed up and got a home near North Lake.

“At the time we were ready to buy, (the neighborhood) was the newest one going,” said Bill Kunzman. “It was just getting under way and we wanted to go to the village that was in progress.”

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Others, like John Burton, a member of the original Irvine City Council that organized the incorporation of the city, were also in the vanguard in their respective neighborhoods. But, because Burton bought his home in University Park--Irvine’s original village--in the late ‘60s, he is about the closest Irvine has to the true native.

University Park is neither the newest nor the most expensive village in the city, said Burton, but it is one of the greenest and one of the most desirable for families.

“There are incredible expanses of greenbelt here,” he said. “And if you’re into the family kinds of things, we’ve got it.”

University Park, said Burton, actually may be starting on its second generation. Many parents who moved there with their children 20 years ago have since moved to smaller dwellings elsewhere, now that the children have left home. And, in their place, young families are beginning to show up.

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“It’s amazing,” said Burton. “There’s so much racket around here now, just like it was 20 years ago.”

Still, a kind of village pecking order continues to survive in the minds of many residents.

“A lot of people have said that people from Northwood want to move to Woodbridge, and people from Woodbridge want to move to Turtle Rock,” said Judy Liebeck, a former president of the Irvine Historical Society. “I think maybe it has to do with better weather. The farther you go toward the mountains, the hotter it gets. You have to have air conditioning in Northwood. It’s a minimum of five degrees cooler where I live.”

Liebeck has lived in University Park for eight years. Before her divorce, she lived for eight years in Turtle Rock. She qualifies as a longtime resident. But, she said, she doesn’t plan to be a resident much longer.

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For Liebeck, the promise of the village concept--and, in larger measure, community planning--has not been fulfilled. She is one Irvine resident who sees regulation, uniformity, code restrictions, strict enforcement and precise planning--the very things that so many people who move to the city prize--as stifling and unnatural.

“I think it’s the most boring city I’ve ever lived in in my life,” she said. “I’m not ready for this kind of control yet. I want more freedom and want people who are sensitive to their history. I’ve heard so many times that there’s no history here. It never evolves. It’s not mature by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t think it ever will be.”

Liebeck said she moved to Irvine because of disgust over what she called rampant, thoughtless planning in her former hometown, Huntington Beach.

“I thought, ‘I don’t need this. I’m going to move to someplace that’s planned,’ ” she said. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. For the first 10 years I really liked it, but then I realized it was like a brave new world. Everything looked the same. Friends couldn’t find my house.”

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The Villages of Irvine UNIVERSITY PARK Development Began: 1965 Development Completed: 1977 Dwelling Units: 2,700 TURTLE NECK Development Began: 1967 Development Completed: 1992 Dwelling Units: 3,800 WALNUT VILLAGE Development Began: 1970 Development Completed: 1980 Dwelling Units: 1,300 EL CAMINO REAL Development Began: 1970 Development Completed: 1984 Dwelling Units: 2,400 RANCHO SAN JOAQUIN Development Began: 1969 Development Completed: 1970 Dwelling Units: 1,700 WOODBRIDGE Development Began: 1975 Development Completed: 1992 Dwelling Units: 9,300 UNIVERSITY TOWN CENTER Development Began: 1982 Development Began: 1992 Dwelling Units: 2,300 WINDWOOD Development Began: 1983 Development Completed: 1987 Dwelling Units: 765 NORTHWOOD Development Began: 1970 Development Completed: 1990 Dwelling Units: 7,600 WESTPARK Development Began: 1985 Development Completed: 1994 Dwelling Units: 3,700


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