Irvine residents celebrate 50 years of unmatched value and quality of life

by TOM BERG

Irvine homeowners may be pleased to watch their property values steadily outpace the rest of California. In the past 10 years, the value of new homes here has risen 93%, compared to 52% throughout the state.

Yet value means a lot more than a number on a check. Some of the best perks of life in this well-planned city can’t be quantified. Like the time saved by shorter commutes to work or school. Or the health-boosting benefits of tens of thousands of acres of nearby open space. Or the confidence that you can send your kids to walk or bike to school in a city ranked for the past 16 years as the safest of its size. Many who’ve made their homes here insist there’s no better place to live, work and play so close to nature.

‘The best possible experience’

“I feel at home in Irvine,” says Ville Houttu, the founder and CEO of the software firm Vincit USA. Originally from Finland, Houttu moved his home and business here after living in more than half a dozen cities all over the world. “It makes me feel I’m also giving the best possible experience for my employees, who live and work here,” he says.

This aspiration was included in the DNA of Irvine’s Master Plan, designed in the early 1960s to spare the new city from what was becoming a regional suburban nightmare. Orange County’s population was surging, bringing traffic, smog and sprawl from the north and west of the historic Irvine Ranch. The Irvine Company and architect William Pereira, the Master Plan’s author, knew they could do better. The result was the city’s 24 distinctive “villages,” in which homes cluster around schools and shops, and streets are planned to minimize congestion.

“The city is so well planned; it’s a lot like Europe in that you can walk to unique nearby amenities. It makes me feel I’m also giving the best possible experience for my employees, who live and work here.” – Ville Houttu, founder and CEO of Vincit

Irvine Company planners wanted residents to be able to play and work near their homes, leaving their cars in their garages as much as possible. Pereira’s vision has helped make Irvine one of the most walkable and bikeable – and healthiest – cities in the country.

The best place to play

“I was always into fitness, but I’ve maintained my health or gotten healthier by living here,” says Mark Dalea, a packaging engineer, mountain biker, and father of a 12-year-old son, who lives in Oak Creek Village. “It’s very valuable to me that any time I want to go out and exercise and get some vitamin D and stress relief, I have a variety of trails just minutes from my door. I don’t have to get into the car to go somewhere great.” Dalea frequently also bikes to work, 5 miles away, at Arbonne International, a vegan skin care, cosmetic and nutrition company.

Having schools and shops close to home has encouraged a sense of community, many residents say. Neighbors bump into each other on the way to drop off their kids or while running errands.

“I joined a local moms’ group when my son was 2 – he’s now 14 – but I still see my mom friends all the time,” says Karen Chao, a mother of two who lives in Northwood. Chao grew up in Irvine and knew she wanted to move back once she and her husband started a family. “It makes a big difference that most of the kids live within walking distance of the schools,” she says.

The best place to work

“(Irvine) definitely puts my brand in front of the right audience.” – Stephanie Lin, Northwood High alum, KESTAN co-owner

Irvine’s award-winning schools, sports programs and safe streets are indirect gifts of the Master Plan. The city hosts a proper balance of commerce and homes, guaranteeing local jobs and a healthy tax base to pay for education and police. That has created a virtuous circle, in which business owners like Houttu have relocated to Irvine, further strengthening the city’s resources.

“The city is so well planned; it’s a lot like Europe in that you can walk to unique nearby amenities,” Houttu says. He had originally brought his firm to Palo Alto but after just four months decided that the city was too crowded.

Stephanie Lin, who grew up here and graduated from Northwood High School, is the co-owner of KESTAN, which sells clothing and jewelry of her own design at Irvine Spectrum Center. She says Irvine’s prestige attracts young professionals, which “definitely puts my brand in front of the right audience.”

Natural assets

Yet another hard-to-measure value of living in Irvine is its celebrated appreciation for the natural environment. This manifests not only in the greenbelts and parks but in the tens of thousands of protected acres of open space surrounding the city. Some of that land was set aside in the original Master Plan, but most was turned over to the county in the 1990s for permanent preservation.

“The opportunity to live so close to so much preserved open space is a wonderful thing to have in the community. ” – Virginia Webber, Irvine Ranch Conservancy docent

Virginia Webber, a longtime volunteer docent at the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, says, “the opportunity to live so close to so much preserved open space is a wonderful thing to have in the community. It’s not just beautiful but offers a standing invitation to change our environment and perspective almost instantly.” Over the years, she says, she has been struck by how often people who don’t know each other become friends while hiking on the trails. “There’s just something very pro-social about being outdoors together.”

As undeveloped green space and natural resources throughout the world become scarcer, and consequently more valuable, that last achievement of open space preservation could make the biggest difference in future property values, not to mention for future generations.