In an era when U.S. cities are adapting to new retail challenges and competing for jobs as if their futures depend on it – because they do – Irvine has a not-so- secret weapon: its sparkling Spectrum District.
One-third of all Fortune 500 firms have offices here, while a thriving retail center attracts 17 million visitors annually – about the same as Disneyland. Upscale apartments and new homes connect to jobs, dining, entertainment and shopping with a vibrant mix of convenience, quality and fun.
The Irvine Spectrum District, known locally as “Spectrum,” is the latest stage in the continual perfection of the Irvine Master Plan: the recognition that this city of villages required an economic engine and cosmopolitan attractions.
“The Spectrum is one of the most successful examples of a mixed-use district that I’ve seen anywhere in the world,” says Nate Cherry, director of urban planning at architecture and design firm Gensler, who credits Irvine Company’s Master Plan for the live-work-play success.
Alan Hess, longtime resident, architect and author, calls the Spectrum “Irvine’s 21st-century update of the traditional downtown.”
An engine for growth
“There’s a work-life balance you can have at the Spectrum that’s hard to get anywhere else,” says Marc Bell, CEO of Terran Orbital, the leading manufacturer of small satellites primarily serving the United States defense industry. Bell, who chose Irvine for his company’s offices in 2013, says the district’s amenities strengthen his hand in recruiting new employees, helping his firm grow.
Today, many of Terran Orbital’s employees work at the 400 Spectrum office tower or its satellite factory, also located in the Spectrum, and live within walking distance in luxury apartments.
“Everything here is so well-planned that there is literally no commute,” Bell says. “We live, work and dine here, and we hardly ever leave. In my first six months here, I went through only half a tank of gas.”
Positioned in the center of Irvine, in the heart of Orange County, the Spectrum has helped attract more coveted high-tech jobs to the region than anywhere else in North America, according to a recent report from the giant real estate firm CBRE. Employers from tech hubs throughout the country – in a range of industries from finance to computer tech to life sciences – have recognized and appreciated Irvine’s carefully designed advantages.
“Irvine is the new Silicon Valley,” contends Huolin Xin, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine. “If you want to attract talent, this is the place.”
Top global firms that include BlackBerry, Amazon, and the gaming juggernaut Blizzard Entertainment – famed for inventing World of Warcraft – have long-established footholds here, increasing the attraction for younger companies with big ambitions.
“We live, work and dine here, and we hardly ever leave. In my first six months here, I went through only half a tank of gas.” – Marc Bell, CEO of Terran Orbital, the world’s leading manufacturer of nanosatellites
The electric truck maker Rivian moved hundreds of tech jobs from Plymouth, Michigan, to the Spectrum in early 2021, adding to the roughly 1,000 jobs it already had here. Among its reasons, the company has said, are the access to top tech talent and the proximity to the beach.
At home in the Spectrum
One of Rivian’s many happy recruits is Bryan Shamasko, an engineer who was attracted both by the company’s innovative green brand and the perks of living at the Spectrum.
His brief commute to work – cut in half from that of his old job outside Detroit – gives Shamasko, 27, and his girlfriend extra time to catch a sunset at the beach or explore open space via trails that connect to their apartment community’s door and lead all the way to the Pacific Ocean. At home at Promenade Village Apartments, they can choose between four saltwater pools.
“It’s like living in a resort,” says Shamasko, recalling the 28-degree weather on the day they left Michigan.
The Spectrum’s six luxury apartment communities and elegant new homes are a major departure from traditional commercial districts, attracting employees who prefer to commute on foot or by bike, thereby reducing local traffic.
Living in the district also puts you a stroll away from Irvine Spectrum Center, with its dazzling array of dining, entertainment and shopping areas arranged along open-air paseos and courtyards landscaped with date palms, olive trees and Italian cypresses.
Success breeds success
Over the years, the Spectrum Center’s unique energy has helped many of its tenants flourish, in and outside Irvine.
“The Spectrum Center put us on the map,” says Verlie Payne, the owner and chef at Hudsons Cookies. A New York City transplant with a former career selling financial software, Payne opened a store at the center in March 2021 and has been thrilled with the traffic and sales.
“Being at the Spectrum is like being on the 50-yard line,” she says. “There’s nowhere else where you can get this kind of traffic, and people tell us they follow the smell of our baking to our door.”
Payne’s success in Irvine has brought interest from other shopping center owners, and she says she’s now in “several conversations” with them as she plans her next expansion. She joins several other retailers whose Spectrum Center location has boosted their prospects.
“It’s all about quality, with a lot of conscious decisions about landscapes and colors that people have spent a lot of time and energy on – and it shows.” – Nate Cherry, Gensler
PF Chang’s, which now has some 300 restaurants throughout the world, was one of the first restaurants to open at the Spectrum when the center debuted in 1995.
Oakley, which today has nearly 200 stores in the United States and Canada, opened its first brick-and-mortar location at the Spectrum Center in 1999.
The Apple Store, which launched at the center in 2006, relocated and expanded 12 years later into what is now one of the brand’s most stunning locations, with an all-glass exterior facing out on a giant fountain. “That store is pretty much second to none and could only occur at the Spectrum, the way it’s designed with the integration of public space,” Cherry says.
When Javier’s upscale Mexican restaurant opened at the center in 2004, it was only the second of what today are five West Coast restaurants owned by Javier Sosa, a former dishwasher who emigrated from Tijuana at 18. Sosa’s daughter, Silvia, who manages the Spectrum Center restaurant, remembers having lunch at the center with her father in the late 1990s. “Even then, he loved the Spectrum,” she says. “He used to say: I want that location!”
Last year, the restaurant doubled the size of its outdoor patio, where guests can dine surrounded by bird of paradise plants, banana trees and palms.
Don’t call it a mall – the appropriate industry term is a “lifestyle center,” given that Spectrum Center offers so much more than shopping. Green Street Advisors, a real estate firm, ranks the center among a select few similar venues in the country to receive an A-plus-plus rating, based on factors that include merchant success, foot traffic, quality of stores and curb appeal.
“It’s this really carefully curated retail environment,” says Cherry with Gensler. “It’s all about quality, with a lot of conscious decisions about landscapes and colors that people have spent a lot of time and energy on – and it shows.”
Many Irvine residents find Spectrum Center to be the backdrop to their social life, no matter what stage of life they are in.
The array of entertainment options includes the 21-screen Regal Irvine Spectrum, America’s most successful Regal theater, and one of the country’s most successful comedy clubs, the Irvine Improv.
A major draw is the “shoppertainment,” including weekend exercise classes, activities for toddlers, a winter holiday ice-skating rink and an ever-changing cast of musical performers.
Ava August, 16, who has been singing and playing music in public since age 10, remembers her first gig at the center, when she was still in sixth grade.
“It was one of those surreal moments because as I was singing, a huge crowd started to form – like 50 or 60 people – and it just solidified how much I love music,” she says.
Within another year, at 13, August auditioned on “The Voice.” She has since appeared on “American Idol” and before sold-out crowds at Los Angeles Rams, Lakers, Dodgers, Kings and Angels games. But she has also returned to Spectrum Center dozens of times to sing and play ukulele, guitar and piano in the courtyard outside Old Navy.
“On summer nights, the courtyard gets filled with people listening and dancing and crowding around,” August says. “The energy at the Spectrum is just unmatched.”