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Irvine Ranch proves true success

Cousins in Atlanta. Duke in Indianapolis. Reckson in New Jersey. All are examples of firms inexorably tied to a locale. Few connections are as strong as the link between Irvine Co. and Orange County, Calif. The Irvine Co. practically owns Orange County.

The massive planned community of Irvine Ranch holds a unique place in the real estate history books. As the industry moves further away from its entrepreneurial, family-owned roots, the Irvine Co. and Irvine Ranch remain a standout. While the Irvine Co. has diversified its holdings and controls a majority ownership of Irvine Apartment Communities - a publicly traded REIT that owns more than 19,000 apartment units - its main purpose is the long-term development of large-scale communities on the Ranch. The complete build-out of the remaining acreage is expected to take another 30 years.

The Irvine Ranch became the "Ranch" more than 100 years ago when James Irvine and two partners acquired the 100,000 acres of land. Irvine bought out his partners a short time later and his son, James Irvine II, incorporated the holdings as the Irvine Co. The Irvine family now controlled almost 20% of Orange County.

For many years, the verdant land on the sea was a working ranch used for agriculture and grazing. As Orange County evolved from a rural county into an industrial region after WW II, the highest and best use of the land changed. In the early-1960s two interstate freeways placed the northern edge of the ranch directly in the path of Southern California's migration to the suburbs, and the series of planned communities is the result.

The Ranch provides housing for more than 200,000 people. Parks and recreation areas play a large part in the design. Connected by trails, most residential neighborhoods on the ranch have their own parks, many complete with pools and play areas. In total, there are more than 100 neighborhood parks and eight golf courses.

Irvine Ranch is considered by many to be one of the most successful projects of its kind. There are currently more than 22 million sq. ft. of office, retail, manufacturing and R&D space housing 2,200 companies. These centers of commerce employ more than 225,000 people.

Education has been a priority of this mixed-use project from the beginning. Within the confines of the Ranch there are three school districts. All boast above average SAT scores, and 90% of all high school grads go to college. College-bound graduates can choose one of the 12 universities and colleges located on the Ranch.

The Irvine Ranch is no longer an Irvine family affair. The Irvine Foundation sold the company to a group of investors in 1977. One of the investors was Donald Bren who, by 1996, had acquired all of the Irvine Co.'s outstanding stock. It will be interesting to see how this unique "project" will look and who will control it over the next 100 years.

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