For more than twenty years, the quintessential formula for the Orange County business park has remained more or less the same: the high-rise office building that affords a good view and a sense of feudal superiority over the masses on the freeway below; the Beverly Hills pasta restaurant to put on the calories at lunchtime and the health club to burn them off after work; and the parking garage where the cars are stored 12 hours a day. In the evening the cars disappear, as the upscale workers head back to their townhouses and condominiums a few miles away.
The formula has been an almost perfect business model for commercial developers, allowing them to capture every dollar of spending from both businesses and employees from dawn till dusk. Now, at last, these developers are targeting the other 12 hours of people’s lives. They’re building housing – not just conventional suburban condominium complexes, but high-rise residential towers. And, as with the high-rise office park of a generation ago, the high-rise housing trend is focused on Orange County.
In Irvine, near John Wayne Airport, for example, the Bosa Development Corporation of Vancouver is building a luxury, 18-story building called Marquee Park Place for the upscale workers who spend most of their time in the high-rise office buildings nearby. It is the first residential structure in Irvine taller than four stories. Meanwhile, a 15-story condo tower is being constructed nearby, adjacent to the campus of the University of California, Irvine. Dwellings in these buildings range in price from $500,000 to about $3 million.
Just a few miles away in Anaheim, several high-rises – including a 35-story condo tower – are proposed as part of The Platinum Triangle, a large urban development near Anaheim Stadium. One residential project is known as “Stadium Lofts.” And in Santa Ana, several high-rise residential towers are in the works. The city is also moving forward with the county’s tallest building, a 37-story office tower that withstood a ballot challenge in April.
Growth opponents have always feared the “Manhattanization” of California. Westwood neighborhood activists in Los Angeles used to call their organization “Not Yet New York.” But the infill housing trend of the last few years has been more of a “Brooklynization” process, involving the construction of blocky four- to six-story apartment and condominium buildings, not far from employment centers, in neighborhoods already snarled with traffic. One high-profile example is the Playa Vista project near Los Angeles International Airport, but there are many others in Orange County, San Jose, and other land-constrained urban areas.
High-rise living has been limited to a few select locations, such as downtown areas in Los Angeles (where high-rise office buildings from the 1970s are now being converted to condos, and where about 30 new residential and mixed-use towers are proposed) and San Diego (where a strong market has led to construction of 15- and 20-story condos throughout the downtown). In each case, extreme residential density has been supported by the context – a plethora of office jobs and a strong rail transit system.
The latest high-rise trend, however, is occurring outside transit-rich downtowns. Orange County may be one of the densest urban areas in the nation, but there is no rail transit and the bus system is not widely used by middle- and upper-middle-class workers. Meanwhile, high-rise proposals have been put forward in less dense environments. In downtown Sacramento, one proposal for a rundown section of the K Street mall includes two high-rise residential buildings that would tower dramatically over the Capitol and everything else in downtown Sacramento — except for other proposed condo towers. And in Oxnard, the largest city in Ventura County, a developer has proposed three residential towers – two 48-story buildings and one 31-story building – on the current site of a Levitz furniture store along Highway 101.
How far will Manhattanization go in California outside the major downtowns? And, more to the point, will it solve any housing problems that Brooklynization won’t?
In Orange County, high-rise residential towers are clearly here to stay as a housing option for the upper middle class. Orange County may not have much in the way of public transit, but in every other way, it is a city. It is a dense collection of interconnected people and activities contained in a small space that is congested and expensive.
Despite anecdotal accounts in the press, it’s unlikely that most people who live in these towers will walk to work. More likely, they’ll beat the traffic by driving very short distances on surface streets to UCI or the nearest high-rise pasta restaurant/office complex. In that sense, Orange County’s high-rises are a variation on the classy and venerable high-rise condo towers along Wilshire Boulevard between Beverly Hills and Westwood. Whether or not they help create critical mass for a rail transit system in Orange County is almost irrelevant.
It is not clear, however, how transferable the OC high-rise idea is. Virtually all comparable urban areas in the state – except for the Westside of Los Angeles – have rail transit that will attract the high-rises around the stations. As for places like Sacramento and Oxnard, it’s not clear that they’ll ever get built.
In Oxnard, at least two of the five members of the usually pro-growth City Council have come out against the towers. And in Sacramento, the high-rise idea is only one of two proposals for the K Street property and there is no guarantee that the city will pick it.
Even if they do get built, it’s not clear that these second-tier high-rises will actually sop up housing demand. More likely, they’ll serve as second homes for the well-to-do – either for pleasure or for business. The Oxnard towers are clearly targeted at retirees and others from Los Angeles looking for a weekend home close to the ocean. The location is hardly at the beach, but the towers would peer from the freeway into the coastal zone to catch views of the ocean. And the Sacramento towers would almost certainly get scooped up by legislators, lobbyists, and political appointees who come to town on a Monday-through-Thursday basis – defeating the city’s goal of creating a round-the-clock street life downtown.
So Manhattanization is likely to be a selective process in California, limited to a few glitzy locations like Irvine. But as California moves forward into an era of more urban housing, Brooklynization will continue to be the workhorse in most locations.