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Reporter’s Notebook

A comment by the man responsible for a bulk of Irvine’s development rubbed this one-time East Coast guy the wrong way.

It came from Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren, who recently accepted a well-earned lifetime achievement award from the Urban Land Institute, the country’s most prominent planning and land-use association.

Stan Ross—a member of the Irvine Co.’s board, and chair of USC Lusk Center for Real Estate—asked Bren during an interview session at the ULI conference why the Irvine Co. had succeeded as a developer of a master-planned community while where so many others have stumbled.

Key Reasons

Bren cited the location of the Irvine Ranch lands that form the basis of the Irvine Co., a long-term approach to development, and Irvine Co.’s privately held status as keys to its success.

I can’t quibble there.

Bren went on to note a few master-planned cities and developers that, for various reasons, didn’t stack up to the work seen in and around Irvine, including the still-in-the-works Newhall Ranch in northern Los Angeles County.

Then he mentioned James Rouse’s development efforts in Columbia, Md.

I grew up in Columbia, calling it home from preschool age until college, so Bren’s thoughts about my old hometown were an eye-opener.

Some background: Columbia, which op-ened in 1967 halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., is generally considered to be one of the country’s first modern, master-planned communities. It predates the incorporation of Irvine by a few years.

Columbia today counts about 100,000 residents, roughly half the population of Irvine.

Similar

The cities have many similar characteristics: They’re generally safe, car-centric communities with plenty of parks, good schools and jobs, gas stations in obscure locations, and some seemingly capricious names for streets and subdivisions.

When I walk around older Irvine neighborhoods such as Woodbridge and Northwood, I sometimes think I’m back in Columbia.

Except for the weather.

Columbia might not have the sheen of Irvine, and some of its older sections have begun to show their age.

And, to be fair to Bren, I believe Southern California’s dominant real estate owner was referring primarily to Columbia’s record in terms of profits from a development standpoint.

It’s true that Columbia didn’t make Rouse, who died in 1996, a billionaire or guarantee the value of his company.

In fact, the 2004 sale of the Rouse Co.—the developer of Columbia and a number of shopping centers across the country—to General Growth Properties Inc. was by most accounts a financial disaster. Five years after the sale, GGP, better known for its own shopping center portfolio, was bankrupt.

Still, to characterize or imply Columbia’s actual development as less than a success seems off-base to me. Money Magazine has consistently listed Columbia as one of the country’s top places to live.

Columbia Comparison

And in the context of some of the utopian-tinged land-use ideals promoted by ULI and its members—including a commitment to affordable housing, community-building, and, in particular, a desire to incorporate families of differing economic classes and backgrounds in the same neighborhoods—I’d argue that Columbia compares favorably to what’s been seen to date on the Irvine Ranch.

That’s no slight on Irvine: I live there now, and have no intention of leaving—it’s easily among the top two master-planned cities I’ve lived in.

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Mark Mueller
Mark Mueller
Mark is the Editor-in-Chief of the Orange County Business Journal, one of the premier regional business newspapers in the country. He’s the fifth person to hold the editor’s position in the paper’s long history. He oversees a staff of about 15 people. The OCBJ is considered a must-read for area business executives. The print edition of the paper is the primary source of local news for most of the Business Journal’s subscribers, which includes most of OC’s major corporate and community players. Mark’s been with the paper since 2005, and long served as the real estate reporter for the paper, breaking hundreds of commercial and residential real estate stories. He took on the editor’s position in 2018.
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