This year’s opening of a 32-acre hilltop park and community center gives Portola Springs a natural town center. Residents say it feels more like a private club than a public park.

Village of the year: Portola Springs

by TOM BERG

Portola Springs claimed its place among Irvine’s great villages in 2019.

It added a new high-tech elementary school; a new sports park; a new community center; new neighborhoods overlooking the city; and new trails that lead to Irvine’s Northern Open Space Preserve.

“This is the best of both worlds up here,” resident Chris Bank says, during his daughter’s soccer game at the new sports park. “We have all this nature around us, and it’s just five minutes to Spectrum Center for a movie or dinner or shopping. That’s why we moved here.”

Irvine’s Master Plan has created a unique city of villages, each with its own character and natural features, and each connected to schools, parks and shops.

“Our villages were built to be part of one large necklace, with each one being its own gem,” is how Ray Watson, the Irvine Company’s original planner, once put it.

Portola Springs residents Chris and Kayee Bank say they feel connected to both nature and the city.

And Portola Springs is the latest of these gems.

“All the open space here really improves our quality of life,” says mom and physician Sonia Sehgal.

“I went to school 3,000 miles away, and I had to come back because it’s such a nice place to raise a family.”

For all of these reasons, we’ve selected Portola Springs as the Village of the Year.

School of the future

Loma Ridge is more than just the newest school in the Irvine Unified School District. It represents the future of education.

“Our goal is to fill our state-of-the-art facility with the latest, greatest and most relevant technology,” Principal Jenna Berumen says.

The campus has the look and feel of a college or a tech startup office. Students use Chromebooks and iPads and study in innovation labs where they program robots, produce movies and build rocket- ship models with 3D printers.

“We want to stimulate their creativity,” Berumen says, “and enhance their learning.”

Not only that, but the new school is an easy walk or bike ride from surrounding neighborhoods.

“I love that we can walk to school,” says parent Tina Kim. “It’s great exercise, and I don’t have to wait in line to drop the kids off. I feel very fortunate.”

The city’s newest school, Loma Ridge Elementary in Portola Springs, makes it easy for parents to walk their children to school every day.

Community park

This year’s opening of a 32-acre hilltop park and community center gives Portola Springs a natural town center.

It’s where families gather to play, to walk and to enjoy a host of activities – from children’s dance classes to adult sports leagues.

“The views are beautiful here,” says resident Christine Van, walking with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. “Our daughter loves to ride her bike here, and we feel really safe.”

Portola Springs Community Park offers lighted ballfields, sports courts, playgrounds and gardens, all surrounding a huge community center. On any given day, the center’s rooms are bustling with children painting, cooking, performing science experiments or practicing ballet.

The park – one of 268 in Irvine – has the feel of a resort, with views of the mountains on one side and views of the city on the other.

“It’s a public park,” Francine Verbarg says, after a pickleball game on the county’s only free, lighted courts. “But it feels like a private club.”

A sense of history

A short walk from Portola Springs Community Park brings you to a little-known historical site in Orange County.

A path wraps around a small hill leading to a monument bearing the name Gaspar de Portolà, the first European explorer of California.

It marks the spot where he camped during his first expedition of the California coast in 1769.

From this spot, you can see another piece of Irvine’s legacy: hillsides of avocado orchards that connect you to more than a century of farming on The Irvine Ranch.

It turns out that Irvine’s Mediterranean climate is perfect for growing avocados. And these orchards, extending from Portola Springs to Orchard Hills, still are cared for by a third-generation Irvine Ranch farmer who’s nurtured them for more than a quarter century.

To step even further back in time, set off on a nearby trail that leads deep into Limestone Canyon. That’s where you’ll find the 20-million- year-old sandstone cliffs known as Irvine’s “Grand Canyon.”

New neighborhoods

There’s a youthful energy in Portola Springs, spurred by new neighborhoods that bring a breezy, open-air California lifestyle to these hills.

The newest are Highland, Hillside and Bluffs – the first neighborhoods in the village built by Irvine Pacific.

The homes come with panoramic sliding glass doors, 10-foot ceilings and lofts. According to Irvine Pacific, things normally seen in custom homes are included in every home.

Nearby neighborhoods include new homes built by California Pacific, KB Home and Richmond American Homes. Together, these new neighborhoods offer a diverse range of price points for homebuyers, from entry-level homes in the $500,000s to homes with stunning views for over $1 million.

These new neighborhoods are attracting young, active families, drawn to Irvine for the schools, safety and outdoor activities.

“It’s nice that there are so many young families moving in,” says resident Christine Van. “We get to meet new people, and they’re involved in the community. They have the same mindset we do as parents.”

Connected to everything

Back at the soccer match in Portola Springs park, Bank points to the hills above and the city below.

“We’re connected to nature and the city,” he says.

That’s what gives Portola Springs its character – and why it has emerged as Irvine’s next great village.

“We have everything all around us,” he says. “It’s what we’ve always wanted.”