Prapti Kannan, her husband and three children love Orchard Hills, she says, because of its strong sense of community.

Having it all in North Irvine

by KATHERINE ELLISON

Ana Tran and her daughter Anh pose for a selfie at the 2019 opening of Loma Ridge Elementary School, one of several award-winning schools in North Irvine.

“It takes a village,” says Prapti Kannan, a busy mother of three, explaining why her favorite aspect of North Irvine life is its sense of community.

In 2019, Kannan, the chief of staff at Scribd, and her husband, Anand, an affordable-housing developer, bought a house in Orchard Hills, a few miles from her Irvine childhood home.

Today she can reliably bump into friends and neighbors on her rounds of dropping off her sons at Orchard Hills School or grabbing coffee at Peets in the Orchard Hills Shopping Center.

The community vibe is no accident. Irvine’s village design is a key part of the Master Plan being celebrated this year, the city’s 50th anniversary, and which most recently has made North Irvine’s five villages such a coveted place to live.

The Northern Sphere – planners’ name for the northern third of the area encompassed by the Master Plan – originally fell outside city limits. But nearly 20 years ago, after several years of public discussion, Irvine incorporated the 7,700 acres, setting the stage for what the plan calls “human-scale” development of the five villages of Orchard Hills, Portola Springs, Woodbury, Eastwood and Stonegate. Today, they’re home to more than 30,000 residents, five community centers and several award-winning schools.

In each of the villages, homes surround hubs of schools and parks and are close to shopping centers. With so many young families nearby, Prapti says it’s natural to run into other parents who keep the same daily schedules. She can socialize as much as she wants and then retreat to her balcony to watch the lights of the city in a view that stretches all the way to the ocean.

Traditionally green

Back in 2002, Irvine’s leaders vowed that new development in North Irvine would maintain Irvine’s green traditions. And indeed, more than half of the land, about 4,600 acres, was set aside as open space, linking the new neighborhoods with the 20,000-acre Northern Open Space Preserve, which extends to the Cleveland National Forest. More green amenities include 60 parks plus the popular Jeffrey Open Space Trail, a 76-acre path for walkers and cyclists that meanders through meadows, creek beds and woodsy trails in the heart of the city.

Among North Irvine’s most notable green assets are reminders of an agricultural past dating to the late 1800s. Eucalyptus tree windbreaks that once guarded fields of strawberries, Valencia oranges and other crops from the Santa Ana winds have been preserved and incorporated into the designs of the new villages. So have hundreds of acres of working avocado groves that sweep down from ridgelines to offer a tranquil backdrop for North Irvine villages.

Prapti Kannan and family, of Orchard Hills: “I grew up in Irvine, so I bump into friends every time I visit my parents or drop off the boys at school or grab a coffee at one of our shopping centers.”

Diverse housing

From the earliest days of the Master Plan, Irvine’s designers worked to make sure the new city would welcome a diverse community of residents. The goal was mostly pragmatic, given that providing opportunities for people with essential local jobs, like nurses, police officers and firefighters, helps make cities more sustainable, reducing traffic and improving local quality of life. Their efforts have made Irvine a regional leader in affordable housing.

As part of the Master Plan, the Northern Sphere now benefits from this commitment to diversity. Nearly 3,000 homes, for renters and first-time homeowners, designed to be affordable for these essential workers, have been built and are a key part of the Master Plan.

A choice location

Chris Bank, a computer programmer for the San Jose-based firm Adobe, worked from home before it was a thing, allowing him to be choosy when he wanted to settle down. As he and his wife, Kayee, began having children and seeking a new home, they prioritized high-quality schools and spending time outdoors, which led them to buy a brand-new house in Portola Springs.

Twelve years later, Bank is sure he made a good choice. Kayee, a nurse, found a job at a nearby clinic, while their two kids, now 15 and 16, can ride their bikes to high school every day.

Niche.com, which grades neighborhoods for features that include school quality and public safety, gives North Irvine an A+ overall rating, calling it “one of the best places to live in California.” These amenities have attracted an unusually highly educated community of young professionals and families. Nearly one-third of North Irvine residents hold a master’s degree or higher, the site says, compared to 12% nationally.

“We’re connected to nature and the city,” say Chris and Kayee Bank of Portola Springs. “We have everything around us. It’s what we always wanted.”

Bank, 44, was especially pleased that his new home was less likely to steal time and energy for remodeling and repairs. “Our kids were both in preschool when we moved from the Bay Area, so we wanted something move-in ready, where we didn’t have to rip up carpet or anything else,” he says. “We knew this was going to be a 10- to 15-year at-minimum proposition, and we wanted to focus on our family.”

Bank and his wife could take advantage of Irvine’s Mediterranean climate and extraordinary access to nature to spend a lot of time together outdoors. On many weekends, they’ve taken bike rides as a foursome from their home all the way to the coast. When the kids signed up to be Scouts while still in elementary school, Bank became a troop leader and led bike rides along Irvine’s Mountains to Sea Trail for camping trips by the ocean.

“The more things you can do together as a family, the more bonding you can do while you explore and learn about your area and the world,” he says.

North Irvine home construction is now nearing its end, with the last new homes expected to be finished within the next few years.

Kannan, in Orchard Hills, says, “As we near the final stages, new families are coming in. That’s what will help keep this a wonderful neighborhood for years to come.”