Friday, October 12, 2012

A Brief History of The Irvine Company (Part I)

As a resident of Orange County, I have long been fascinated by Irvine.  It is the only city I am aware of that is largely owned and managed by a corporation (The Irvine Company).  For me, it represents some of the more depressing aspects of suburban Orange County: large, master-planned housing developments, enormous retail malls, and a conspicuous lack of any real center, or downtown.

Traditionally, a city's downtown is the hub of cultural and social activity, a place where diverse members of the community meet and interact.  Irvine, lacking any real center, is a strange cultural and social phenomenon, and it seems to practically cry out for serious study and reflection.  What, exactly, is the deal with Irvine?

So, imagine my delight when I found an academic paper called "Designing the Model Community: The Irvine Company and Suburban Development, 1950-1988" by Martin J. Schiesl, a history professor from Cal State LA.  The paper appears as a chapter in a wonderful book I'm reading called Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II, which is edited (appropriately) by a few professors from UCI.  For someone like me, who is sincerely interested in understanding this strange place called Orange County, this book is a goldmine of insight.

Without further ado, I present part I of my synopsis of Schiesl's history of The Irvine Company:

The Irvine Company predates the city of Irvine by almost a hundred years.  In the 1860s, a wealthy San Francisco merchant named James Irvine partnered with the Flint, Bixby & Company (sheep merchants) to purchase three old Mexican ranchos in southern California: Rancho San Joaquin, Rancho Lomas de Santiago, and parts of Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana.  Before the United States' conquest of California in 1848, the land was largely owned by Mexican ranchers.

Irvine bought out his partners in 1876 for $150,000.  Irvine's son, James II, consolidated and incorporated his father's property and created The Irvine Company in 1894.  It was James II who transformed the land from cattle/sheep grazing to full-scale commercial agriculture.  By 1920, hundreds of acres were devoted to citrus production.

After WWII, with the Southern California housing boom, Myford Irvine (who I believe was James II's son.  There have been at least three James Irvines in the dynasty) moved the company, with its vast holdings, into the development business.

Under Myford's reign, during the 1950s, the Irvine Company began subdividing and building large tracts along its prime coastal real estate with idyllic names like Irvine Cove, Cameo Shores, and Harbor View Hills.  Between 1950 and 1960, Orange County's population rose 220 percent, from 220,000 to 704,000.  The Irvine Company built affluent housing to meet this demand.

The Company hired famous architect William Periera to help design the proposed UCI campus and other south county developments.  Periera was optimistic: "Periera believed that there was nothing 'more ugly' than vast areas of open land paved for parking lots and spoke fervently of neighborhood and regional parks that would 'restore the land to the pedestrian.'"  Periera submitted his plan in 1964, which called for 'balanced communities' that would foster social diversity.  Shortly after submitting his plan, Periera was replaced by a full-time professional planning staff.

The Irvine Company deviated from Periera's plan in a few key areas: affordable housing, social diversity, and environmental concerns.

First, affordable housing.  Schiesl writes, "Least promising to him [Irvine Company vice president Raymond Watson] and other Irvine executives was low-income housing.  They claimed to be committed to population diversity and repeatedly spoke about a reasonable range of building types and prices in their residential projects.  Most of the homes, however, were luxury dwellings with costly frills and were affordable only by upper-middle and upper-class people...the Irvine Company chose not to hold down costs of new houses and continued to advertise its urban landscape as a high-income homogenous place to live."

According to Alan Kreditor, professor of urban and regional planning at USC and former consultant to the Irvine Company, "It [Irvine] will be a white, upper-middle class, sterile, suburban ghetto."  Other critics contrasted Irvine with planned communities like Columbia, Maryland and Reston, Virginia, which were successfully committed to affordable housing and diversity.  To these charges, vice president Watson responded, "When Columbia started, they ran full-page newspaper ads showing pictures of interracial couples.  Back there, that went over great.  But if I tried that here [in Irvine], I would scare off every white person I had even the slightest hope of getting."  Consequently, a survey of urban specialists at Claremont College "revealed that 95 percent of the 10,500 residents living in the residential villages were white."

To be fair, The Irvine Company is not entirely to blame for this.  Historically, Orange County has been a welcome place for racists.  Many of its founding pioneers were members of the Ku Klux Klan, school segregation was common until Mendez Vs. Westminster, and the region has long been characterized by official and unofficial housing segregation and discrimination.  The policies of the Irvine Company, therefore, reflected the prevailing values of the region, or at least the values of the wealthy and influential.

One minority member of an equal-opportunity sub-panel attributed this severe imabalance to certain policies prevalent in suburban Southern California in general and The Irvine Company in particular: "The creation of the suburbs and their growth is directly related to the process of relegating nonwhite minorities to the rundown core of the cities.  In the Irvine Plan, as in all those I have heard of, there is implied the the idea that 'quality [natural] environment costs a lot.'  This implication carried to its logical extension means those unable to pay for a quality environment aren't going to get one."

"When Columbia started, they ran full-page newspaper ads showing pictures of interracial couples.  Back there, that went over great.  But if I tried that here [in Irvine], I would scare off every white person I had even the slightest hope of getting."

--Raymond Watson, former Irvine Company VP