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Monday, Oct 2, 2023

Woodbridge: A Jewel in the Crown Unlike Any Other

Editor’s Note: Two former Irvine Co. executives, H. Pike Oliver and Michael Stockstill, recently published “Transforming the Irvine Ranch: Joan Irvine, William Pereira, Ray Watson and The Big Plan.” The 308-page book, published by Routledge and available on Amazon, examines the history of planning and development on the Irvine Ranch from 1947 to 1977, 30 critical years between the death of James Irvine II and the sale of the company to a consortium led by Alfred Taubman, Charles Allen, Joan Irvine Smith and Donald Bren. The book draws on the writings and oral histories of former company president Ray Watson, as well as interviews with former company employees, books and historical documents, many from the Special Collections at the UC Irvine Langson Library. The following excerpt about the Village of Woodbridge is from Chapter 20: The Jewel in the Crown. At 2.7 square miles, Woodbridge nowadays is considered one of the nation’s finest master-planned communities, home to 30,000 people living in 9,600 homes. Its principal HOA has an annual operating budget of $11 million and assets such as swimming pools and tennis courts valued at $46 million.

Neighborhoods of new homes were opening all over Orange County in 1976, but there had never been anything quite like this one.

Television crews recorded the scene, including one from a helicopter hovering overhead. Irvine Company hostesses and hosts, who had carefully and methodically been recording names on the interest list for more than a year, organized the paperwork for the imminent lottery process. In just a few minutes, happy cries and shrieks would be heard as the first 200 homes were allocated to eager buyers.

The attraction was the Village of Woodbridge, a sprawling new Irvine Company development in the heart of a city just five years old.

Woodbridge represented perhaps the boldest effort to turn the city and company’s visionary master plan into reality. In addition to being bold, it was risky, both financially and from a market standpoint. Millions of dollars had been spent on infrastructure to serve the new homes the seven builders on site would be offering for sale. Additionally, the first of two man-made lakes had been scooped out, contoured, landscaped and filled with water; at one end of the lake stood the signature symbol of the new community, a stylish wooden bridge.

Success at $100K an Acre

Ray Watson told Doug Gfeller, the project manager for the massive undertaking, said that if land sales to builders cleared more than $100,000 an acre, all would be well. As it turned out, prices were much, much better.

According to Watson, planning for Woodbridge … began in earnest in 1973. By then, he said in his oral history, “Irvine had been incorporated for two years. We had villages just west of the Santa Ana Freeway and west of the San Diego Freeway with a gap between each. Woodbridge was to be the bridge between the two areas.”

At first, Watson said, “We were concerned its 1,700 acres might be too large and that we could break it down into two villages.” Watson was also worried that “Irvine was becoming two towns,” another argument for creating a single village. In the final analysis, the fact that “we were close to utilities in both areas and for practical reasons it was efficient to make Woodbridge into one large village.”

Watson reviewed how greenbelts were designed in Eastbluff and then University Park, as well as the placement of swimming pools within and adjacent to them … With the vision of recreation and the lakes becoming clearer, Watson recalled, “that began to dominate the visual aspect of what Woodbridge was going to look like.”

Hilton Head Inspiration

The idea of lakes and a bridge was inspired from a visit by company planners to Hilton Head, South Carolina, according to Gfeller.

“We were fascinated by the role the lighthouse played in the image of the community,” he said, which led to the bridge and the lake.

A planning issue in the creation of Woodbridge that Watson remembered was the question of public access alongside the two lakes.

“Our planners wanted to have a public sidewalk like Balboa Island and a bridge to go across the lake giving access to the public on one side. On the other hand, the real estate people said, ‘you are giving up value by putting that public sidewalk in because we receive much more for our land and can sell the houses at a higher price if they are right on the water and have their own dock for their boats.’”

Watson’s egalitarian outlook pushed him toward the total public path, but his business obligations led him to hire an appraiser to consider the value proposition. The outcome, he recalled, was inconclusive, and a compromise reached—a public path was constructed around most, but not all, of the two lakes, leaving a few choice parcels completely private. The bridges were entirely public.

Next to Heaven

A key element in the realization of Woodbridge that worked with spectacular success was the variety of housing types and how well they sold. It was the result of a company marketing executive that his colleagues all remembered with the same description: a genius.

Ken Agid came to the Irvine Company from the marketing firm of Sanford Goodkin, which was the source of the famous response to the question, how valuable is the Irvine Ranch. Goodkin’s answer: “God gave up his option to purchase the Irvine Ranch only after Heaven came along.”

Agid’s timing was good. By the early 1970s, the company had been refining its relations with individual builders to create and promote different kinds of housing styles to appear to customers.

Watson mentions in his oral history that the company conducted surveys of new home buyers to determine levels of satisfaction with their purchase … According to Irvine Company executives who worked with him, Agid revolutionized the process of collecting and analyzing data about homebuying desires, refining the concept of marketing segmentation into both a science and an art.

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