The Sole Owner of Irvine

by Tony Chavira

If you live in Irvine, then the term “Master Plan” has been beaten into your everyday vocabulary. When you talk about planning in and around the Irvine Spectrum, The Industrial/Business Park, and the Orange County Great Park (aka El Toro and The Great Park), just to name a few of the huge initiatives, some of the efforts are more developer-led and some are more city-led. As I’ve mentioned in the past, neither of these options is particularly good or bad. Just make sure that you’re more informed than the average Joe Passiveobserver.

But let’s first clear up something right away: Yes, I’m bandwagoning on Rebecca Schoenkopf’s UC Irvine article. And why not? Who’s going to stop me?


So Here’s The Story:

James Irvine
Irvine père
James Irvine Jr.
Irvine fils

In 1864, Jose Sepulveda (yes, THAT Sepulveda) was dirt poor after a massive drought that left most of his land unsuitable for farming. $18,000 later, three guys owned 50,000 acres of modern-day Orange County: Irvine, Flint and Bixby. Two years and $7,000 later than that, the three men had another 47K acres. James Irvine ended up paying out about $150K for his partner’s shares in 1878, and died a very content man in 1886. A few years later, James Irvine Jr. took sole control and created The Irvine Company. Their original land holdings (just to give you an idea of how much land one man could get for $150K in 1878) included the City of Irvine, Laguna Beach, Orange, Tustin, and Newport Beach. There’s actually a funny story about how Irvine was a heavy gambler and to pay back a debt he basically gave his creditor Laguna Beach. Yeah, the beachfront side ... man, what I would’ve given to be a card shark in the late 1800s.

Being the visionary that he was, James Irvine Jr. developed The Irvine Company in 1894, and thus began the process of environmental civic planning all the way back in these carefree olden times. How was this man so visionary, you ask? Imagine you were in the same scenario: if you owned 100,000 acres of land and people wanted to start developing on it, you’d want to make sure that the space itself was designed to maximize the value of your property. Slums, in fact, do not do that (just in case you needed that clarified).

The Irvine Company

And so The Irvine Company’s epic quest for civic design began! In the late 1940s, it began to open up its land for some development, and in 1959 it sold 1,500 acres of land to the University of California system for $1 as long as architect/urban designer William Pereira was on board to basically do the whole thing (and with a fee like whatever they were offering him, he’d be a fool to turn it down). As expected, it stimulated growth, and The Irvine Company adjusted for it, selling small parcels of land here, developing on other plats there. Eventually, in 1971 (a year after completion of tons and tons of development, including University Park, Walnut, and The Ranch, to name a few), the residents voted to incorporate an area as the actual City of Irvine, as opposed to being a massive socialist arena under the guidance of the Irvine Company and the County of Orange. But yeah, the space is still owned by The Irvine Company.

Seriously though, what does one company do with so much land? Of course, the Irvine Company has a master-planned vision for this space, including small community villages, industrial and business spaces, and smart planning initiatives; just check out their very intentionally-named advocacy and informational website: That should say it all.


So Who’s Really in Charge: The Irvine Company or The City of Irvine?

I chose to focus on Irvine as an interesting case study because it’s so radically opposite from the L.A. River situation. In fact, even though there are something like 20 projects outlined by their master plan at any given time, I would dare to say that Irvine has a leg up in terms of the coordination to follow through with smart planning initiatives. Here’s how:

    Captain Picard
    “Make It So”
  1. Investment
    The Irvine Company has a stake in its investment. The more money it can make, the smarter its investment will be. Investing, generally speaking, is smarter than a company simply giving money because it requires that the investor keep checking up on their investment to be sure that they’re well-maintained and paying off. This way, good things that start at Irvine City Hall or good research can be adapted as easily as the Irvine Company waving its hand and commanding it so!
  2. Bureaucracy
    My next “MasterPlanning!” article will be on eminent domain, so I’ll leave the details of land control by the wayside for now. Until then I task you NOT to think about The Irvine Company as some sort of monolithic super company that owns a godzillian acres of land including part of the actual city of Orange (for which the county is so obviously named). Instead, think about The Irvine Company as a sort of smart planning department for the City of Irvine and lands beyond. The City of Irvine actually got a free master plan if you think about it, one that takes into account the smaller residencies and communities AND developer initiatives for growth. The Irvine Company can actually facilitate at every level of government to make sure that smart-growth proposals have realistic timelines and goals. It’s a business, they want results.
  3. Money
    Pushing through initiatives at the county level is rough, especially when you’ve seen county building and civic codes. The Irvine Company has the resources to have an in-house team that lives and breathes building and planning codes. If every development and land-owning company had the same, it would be a much faster world of construction. This can be seen as neither good nor bad, since The Irvine Company owns so much property that it has the ability to lobby for changes depending on its whims. Luckily for us, the City of Irvine itself can technically still say “no” if it looks like a bad deal.
  4. Political Will
    Needless to say, The Irvine Company management know everyone in every political office everywhere in Orange County. That kind of lobbying and support can help or hinder any project, build or block legislation at any scale, make or break any changes to their own master plan. I’ll leave this open for you to interpret as you choose, but on a personal note I’m waiting for Jim Washburn’s interview with the Mayor of Irvine.
  5. And Yeah, Money Again
    If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know that I’m a huge fan of civicscaping, a sort of amalgamation of landscaping and streetscaping to make sure that your city streets and public spaces are designed to be conducive to walking and thinking “ooh, that’s pretty.” Most developers or landowners have their land and stick to it, expecting that their taxes will keep the streets and parks beautiful (or at least good enough). The Irvine Company owns the parks and streets and that basically says it all. Money they make from their investments, developments and other assorted madness can (and luckily does) go to beautification efforts of all sorts. Driven through Irvine lately? It is, in fact, immaculate.
Irvine seal

So who’s really in charge: The Irvine Company or The City of Irvine? Technically, the City of Irvine. Behind the Orange Curtain, one might think that the Irvine Company has the cash, the land, and the political will to do whatever sorts of rascalism they want, and we both know that big business and government make cozy bedfellows. I’m not going to say that The Irvine Company is really in charge of anything or has any power over the City of Irvine, because it’s really isn’t the case. Seriously.

Instead, we’ve found a community where master planning efforts are so coordinated that the Irvine Company and the Irvine City can complement each other, as well as pay for their efforts as they go. I mean, the Irvine Company does get taxed on their land holdings, so it’s a total win-win for both. But Irvine residents should still keep an eye open: a company’s only as moral as its goals and officers. Use public relations to your advantage and follow-up on proposed projects, demanding reason for development and changes at every step of the way. You are the City of Irvine! You are the proletariat! Go forward and command it to be so!

Here's the City of Irvine's website, to keep the politicians honest:

The Irvine Company's got a ton of websites, but here's their main one,
where we can see the smiling faces of their head officers:

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


No comments.

Comments closed.


Features | Blog