First Irvine, Now Comes Its Downtown

Times Staff Writer

Imagine a verdant park surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings, round-the-clock rail and bus service, people walking to work or strolling to grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters.

Chicago? Boston? New York? How about Irvine?

The Orange County city that helped define modern suburbia is looking for its urban soul.

In the next several years, developers expect to build more than 4,000 apartments and condominiums, including two or more 18-story residential buildings, on a 2-mile stretch of Jamboree Road straddling the San Diego Freeway, where much of Irvine’s commercial development already has occurred.


With homes will come supermarkets, entertainment venues and shuttle services to ferry residents along Jamboree, city officials say. They hope that many of those who work in the area will also choose to live and play in this new downtown.

It is a harbinger of future development in Orange County and the rest of Southern California, urban planners and developers say.

As rising home prices force people farther and farther afield, the region’s jammed freeways are expected to only get worse. One solution, planners say, is to keep downtown workers from leaving once they punch out from their jobs.

From Los Angeles to San Diego, cities have encouraged more downtown housing in recent years, either through construction or renovation of commercial buildings. The ventures seek to transform downtown business districts into urban cores where people can live and entertain themselves as well as work -- a radical shift in Southern California, where for decades developers have put the three in separate zones.

That shift is now underscored with Irvine, a young city with no definable downtown, poised to create one from scratch based on a mixed-use model, planners and developers say.

“If you look at Paris, Rome, New York, Chicago, they work because they have mixed use,” said Donna Alm, a vice president of the Centre City Development Corp., a public nonprofit organization charged with San Diego’s downtown redevelopment over the last 30 years.

It’s easier to create a mix of urban uses from the ground up than to try it with an existing downtown, she said. “Irvine is doing the right thing by planning it from the start.”

Irvine, long seen as emblematic of Orange County’s suburban south, is now taking on the traits of the more urban north.

“That is the future as Orange County grows out of its suburban adolescence into urban maturity,” said Scott Bollens, professor of planning, policy and design at UC Irvine. “This could create some sense of place, a sense of centrality in Irvine that the city has lacked in the past.”

That future does not sit well with everybody.

“If you want a downtown experience you can move to San Francisco or downtown Los Angeles,” said former Irvine Councilman Greg Smith. “The city of Irvine was originally conceived as a master-planned suburban community. People who live here have spent their hard-earned money to buy homes on that assumption.... They came here to escape the city.”

Irvine’s mayor and longtime proponent of a downtown for the city, which incorporated in 1971, disagrees.

Founders’ Vision

“The early visionaries of Irvine didn’t think of it as a suburban utopia,” said Larry Agran. “They thought of a planned city with a blend of high-density and low-density housing.”

The new downtown will not destroy the city’s master-planned flavor, he said. “I think of Irvine as an evolved modern city that incorporates the best features of city and suburban life.”

About half of the housing in the 47-square-mile city of 160,000 is single-family homes; the rest is a blend of high-end townhomes, condominiums and apartments.

That proportion could change drastically in the next few years. The more than 4,000 multi-family residential units planned along Jamboree Road more than double the number of homes originally zoned for the business district.

The homes are destined for land previously planned for business use and will not dramatically change traffic in the area, city officials say.

The new residential projects are approved on a case-by-case basis.

The area is now a collection of corporate headquarters and shopping plazas with a smattering of apartments.

On the western end of the road close to UCI, several villa-style, low-profile apartment complexes have been completed recently with others ready to hit the market soon.

Just a block east, however, is where the most drastic changes are planned.

Construction is set to begin next month on twin 18-story residential towers at the intersection of Jamboree Road and Michelson Drive, next to the San Diego Freeway. Bosa Development Corp., a Canadian company, expects the 240 condominiums to be priced between $500,000 and $1.5 million.

On a 42-acre lot across the street, another developer plans to build an equally tall apartment building, plus townhomes, offices and stores around a recreational park. In total, the project, still being planned, would add 1,740 homes, 220,000 square feet of office space and 21,400 square feet of retail stores.

“We are calling it Central Park,” said Tim Strader Jr., president of Irvine-based Starpointe Ventures, a development and consulting firm representing the land’s owner, Highgate Holdings. “This is the right place and the right use.”

It is also a more profitable use. With the market for office space declining, developers are now hoping to cash in on the hot housing market.

But downtown Irvine is far from a done deal. To create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly oasis in the middle of suburbia, the city needs a mass-transportation system that will bring shoppers and workers to the area and take local residents to airports, services and jobs elsewhere.

CenterLine Seen as Key

A key component is the proposed Orange County CenterLine, a 11.4-mile light rail system that would cross Jamboree Road and include stops at John Wayne Airport, the Santa Ana train station and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

But critics of the line say it would be a waste of money and do little to solve the region’s traffic problems. Irvine voters will decide today whether to allow CenterLine to go through their city. If they vote it down, it could spell the end of the controversial project.

Agran said that with CenterLine, downtown Irvine would be “more accelerated and far more successful,” but that even without it the concept could flourish with a good bus system.

He envisions a Southern California of small, relatively self-contained downtowns surrounded by traditional suburban developments and interlocked by mass transit.

“It may sound farfetched now,” he said, “but I don’t think in five, 10 years people will be surprised to learn that there are people living in Irvine who don’t own an automobile.”