Irvine Embraces Infill

 

Jamboree Road might not become the next Park Avenue, but a new vision plan recently completed by the City of Irvine signals a major shift away from the suburban lifestyle of Orange County. One of the early cities to pioneer the strict segregation of office-park style commercial development from master-planned residential areas, Irvine will be allowing thousands of new residential units into its business core in the coming decades. 

The Irvine Business Complex vision plan calls for increasing residential density and creating mixed-use neighborhoods throughout a 2,000-acre swath along the 405 freeway and south of John Wayne Airport. The area is currently occupied almost exclusively by commercial and industrial uses. Prior to the adoption of the vision plan, up to 9,000 units had been slated for the area, many of which have already been built or permitted. 

The plan increases that number by 6,000, to 15,000 total. The plan also provides for 6 million square feet of office, industrial, and retail space that will be interspersed among the residential development, thus breaking down the strict segregation of land uses that have long characterized Southern California cities. 

Nearly 90,000 jobs and over 4,500 businesses makes it one of Southern California’s largest employment centers. The city claims that it has a stark jobs-housing imbalance, with three jobs for every one residential unit. The vision plan aims to provide housing for workers to live near their jobs and provides for neighborhood amenities including parks and retail. 

Upon full build-out – in an estimated 20 years – the area will be one of the most densely populated in the county. What it may not be, however, is a cohesive, walkable community, according to its most outspoken critic on the Irvine City Councilmember, Christina Shea. 

Shea said she is concerned that haphazard development within the IBC might not knit the community together but instead create residential pockets without effective internal connections. 

“The plan is really not a complete overlay plan. You’re going to have many businesses and older residential that aren’t participating in this plan,” said Shea. “If it was completely redesigned and everything was going to be new and blending…I think it would be marvelous.”

Thus, the IBC faces the increasingly common challenge of retrofitting an already built-up area with infill. 

“It’s going to be almost a mish-mash of new and old,” said Shea.  

To some, that “mish-mash,” translates into the flexibility to develop incrementally and to gently wean Irvine off its history of greenfield development. 

 “In a planning area that’s as diverse as this, where you have very industrial areas in certain places and emerging mixed use cores in other areas…a plan needs to be specific enough to last through the environmental process but also flexible enough to apply equally across the entire planning area,” said Patrick Strader, an attorney who collaborated with the city on drafting the vision plan. 

Moreover, the very age of the IBC all but requires the introduction of new development. Chris Lynch, vice president of Business and Economic Development Irvine Chamber of Commerce, said that much of the current inventory in the IBC area is “from a different era” and nearing the end of its useful life.

“It’s going to give an impetus to re-landscape this area without having to go through the formality of a redevelopment district,” said Lynch. 

Culminating a planning process begun in 2005, the Irvine City Council approved both the environmental impact report for the IBC and a general plan amendment with a mixed use overlay zoning code. Both resolutions were read twice, on July 13 and July 26, and passed without opposing votes. 

“In the early 2000s we were seeing more pressures for development in the IBC,” said Tim Gherich, manager of Development & Planning Services. “As opposed to dealing with developments on a case-by-case basis, the council decided to put a hold on (development) and look at a larger vision for that area.”

The approved general plan element replaces a former density cap of 52 residential units per acre with a new density floor of 30 units per acre. Ultimately, the plan does not create a net gain in intensity because the newly approved residential development was offset by an equivalent reduction in approved commercial and industrial development. 

“It’s a trade-off between residential and non-residential,” said Gehrich.

If developers pursue density bonuses for affordable housing, per SB 1818, the number of residential units could increase by another 2,000 units. 

The IBC may also help Irvine meet housing goals assigned to it by the Southern California Association of Governments’ 2004 regional housing needs assessment. SCAG has called for the city to add 35,000 units, including 21,000 affordable units. The city has vehemently contested those numbers and sued SCAG over them (CP&DR Vol. 22, No. 9). The city claimed that the SCAG numbers represent a disproportioned burden on the city in light of its population – with 40 percent of the assigned housing burden but only 6 percent of the county’s population. However, in October a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the regional planning agency. 

While Lynch said that the vision plan has garnered praise from the city’s business community, Shea said that she is concerned that the IBC places an undue burden on the area’s residential developers. The plan calls for infrastructure retrofits and other expenses that will be passed on to developers at a rate of roughly $75,000 per unit. 

“I just do not think it’s fair that the residential developers have to pay the entire $80 million exaction,” said Shea. “Why aren’t they having to chip in for this overlay plan?”

Some of that expense stems from opposition from neighboring cities of Tustin and Newport Beach.  Both cities sued Irvine on the grounds that traffic from IBC would put undue strain on those cities’ roads and other infrastructure. The city has already paid $3.6 million in impact fees to Newport Beach and has agreed to give Tustin between $4.5 and $6.5 million. 

Plans for high-rise office and apartment buildings also gave the John Wayne Airport Land Commission pause shortly before the ordinances came before the council. However, the plan was altered to keep taller buildings away from flight paths. 

“The city put in the plan that no buildings would penetrate the imaginary obstruction surface,” said Kari Rigoni, executive officer of the Orange County Airport Land Commission. “That’s calculated based on FAA regulations. That satisfied the commission.” 

Strader said that two industrial occupants of the IBC – Allergen pharmaceuticals and paint manufacturer Deft -- had expressed reservations about the placement of residential development close to their factories. In response, the plan was altered to create 1,000-foot buffer zones. 

For many of those companies’ neighbors, the vision plan represents a chance to attract and retain a new generation of employees that are not necessarily looking for suburban single-family homes. 

“We have a lot of video gaming companies here and their employees are very much interested in live-work areas,” said Lynch. Paradoxically, the emphasis on residential development may “enhance the city’s identity as a jobs center.” 

As a result, Lynch said that the IBC vision plan represents a major step in the city’s maturation, away from the days when brand-new buildings were sprouting on virgin ranchland. 

“There’s still some greenfields left in the city, but really it’s Phase II” of the city’s maturation, said Lynch. “It’s no longer so much filling things out, it’s concentrating things, making them a little bit more dense, and combining living and working.” 

Contacts & Resources

City of Irvine IBC Official Site and Planning Documents

Chris Lynch, Vice President of Business and Economic Development, Irvine Chamber of Commerce (949) 660-9112 

Kari Rigoni, Executive Officer, John Wayne Airport Land Use Commission, (949) 252-5170

Christina Shea, City Council Member, City of Irvine, (949) 724-6000

Patrick Strader, The Law Offices of Patrick Strader, (949) 622-0422

 

-- Josh Stephens