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Ronald Birtcher, who helped build modern-day Orange County, dies at 89

Ronald Birtcher in the early 1980s.
(Courtesy of Birtcher family)

Ronald Birtcher, a real estate developer who helped transform Orange County in the decades after World War II from an agricultural community to one of the most densely populated regions in the state, has died. He was 89.

Birtcher and his brother Art also built large-scale projects in Los Angeles County, including the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood and the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market downtown.

He died April 21 at his home in Napa, Calif., of heart failure, his son Brandon Birtcher said.

Ron Birtcher was born Feb. 24, 1931, in Orange, where as a youngster he worked in the orange groves lighting smudge pots to keep crops from freezing overnight. His father, Fayette, and his uncle Cecil owned a citrus packing plant that was among the first to produce frozen concentrate for orange juice.

In the 1950s, Birtcher joined his father in a Corona del Mar construction and development business that pioneered a now-widespread building technique of creating concrete walls in molds on the ground, then tilting them up into place.

“Southern California boomed after the war when a lot of men and women coming back decided to stay and build their careers,” Brandon Birtcher said.

“Dad had relationships with citrus-growing families whose properties were in prominent paths of progress, so he began to design and lay out master-planned business parks in the early 1950s. Many of his joint ventures were with the grove owners of the day.”

From a rise just before Birtcher headquarters, you can see a valley spread out like a map.

In 1961, Ronald Birtcher and his brother founded family partnership Birtcher Pacific that went on to construct, develop, market and manage more than 40 million square feet of properties in the U.S.

Much of their work was in Orange County, where the Birtchers became prominent figures in the real estate industry at a time when the population was rapidly increasing and commercial firms were moving in, making the county increasingly more cosmopolitan.

“Ron was one of the great real estate people in a generation that included Henry Segerstrom, Donald Bren, John Lusk, Donald Koll and William Lyon,” long-time Orange County journalist Martin Brower said. “These men took advantage of the tremendous growth of Orange County.”

The Birtcher family business hit it big in 1969 when Southern Pacific Railroad picked the Birtchers to help develop its widespread real estate holdings — more than 2 million acres — and the company found itself constructing a variety of buildings around the country. Among them was the massive Pacific Design Center showroom and office complex, which was erected on railroad land at Melrose Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard.

In 1990, Birtcher and his brother sold 50% of their development and construction company for more than $100 million to Mitsui & Co. Ltd, at the time the world’s largest trading company. The Times reported: “It’s the first time that a Japanese company has bought into a large U.S. real estate developer, and some experts say it signals a major shift in the way that the Japanese are investing in U.S. properties.”

The Birtcher company reacquired its interest in that partnership in 1997, at which time Birtcher took the opportunity to retire, Brandon Birtcher said.

Just before his retirement, though, Birtcher opened an office in China in what the Chinese press said was the first cooperative agreement between a Chinese real estate development company and a U.S. counterpart to manage and develop real estate in China.

“Right up to the end, Ron was a visionary,” his son said.

Birtcher had other business pursuits in addition to real estate, including a 110-acre date farm and packing operation in the Coachella Valley and the cultivation and worldwide distribution of exotic protea flowers, grown on the slopes of the Haleakala volcano in Maui.

He also grew Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at his Meadowbrook Farm estate in Napa, where he and his wife, Joanne, moved in 1988. Their fruit was used to make wine for the Robert Mondavi and Opus One brands.

In recent years, he spent much of his time working with the Birtcher Family Foundation, which he formed with his wife to support overseas missions to promote Christian evangelism.

Birtcher is survived by his wife; daughter, Shelley McCroskey; and sons Brandon and Baron.

Roger Vincent is a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times.

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