Mention Irvine, and the image of neatly combed neighborhoods and award-winning schools come to mind. It’s a city that in 40 years has become a model of master planning, drawing worldwide attention. I will never forget when, while sitting in the South Korean parliament in Seoul two years ago, a top-ranking official asked specifically by name about one Irvine elementary school and the surrounding homes of Turtle Rock. He pressed to learn more about this place, where students excel and people live safely. “Is it really that nice?” he wondered aloud to the delegation of visiting Irvine city and business leaders.
The short answer is yes. However, some suggest the city’s shiny reputation has been cultivated through the same sort of “reality distortion field” that helped Steve Jobs transform Apple into a global icon of design and function. With a mix of charm, bravado and smart marketing, Jobs would roll out new product after new product to a growing audience of believers who lined up to buy them. Irvine has had much the same box- office success by maintaining a standard of consistency and performance envied by municipalities of all sizes. It is not perfect. But most cities of 215,000 residents are not without warts. The perception is that Irvine, celebrating 40 years this year, is as good as it gets when it comes to an American city.
But there is one ingredient in this tale of civic achievement that is often underplayed: It is business. Monday through Friday, Irvine is a powerful economic engine, some say the most powerful in the region. It has emerged as a critical portal for corporations trafficking goods and services to all corners of the globe. Anchored by one of America’s leading research universities churning out talent in business, engineering, biotechnology, medicine and now law, Irvine is a business destination few cities will ever rival in the Golden State. On weekdays, Irvine’s population swells to double its size as the high-rises and office parks in the Irvine Business Complex, the Irvine Spectrum, University Research Park and other business centers fill with highly educated and well-paid workers. It has a diverse workforce (one-third of the city’s residents are now Asian, and there is a vibrant Persian population emerging, as well) that elevates Irvine to an international economic crossroads. Some 20,000 companies are licensed to do business in Irvine, many of which have a global footprint.
“It’s a phenomenon,” Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang says. “We are a global market-place. We have many foreign companies here: Toshiba, Mazda and Samsung. And, there are many more, like Allergan, Broadcom and Western Digital, that do business around the world. Our business community is a source of strength for this city.”
So how did Irvine become this business mecca? Planning pioneers like Ray Watson of the Irvine Co. peered into the future during the 1950s and ’60s and saw the inevitable. The urban sprawl of L.A. would soon spread to Orange County. Watson, and later Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren, correctly bet that the Irvine Ranch, blessed with a great location and geography, was the logical parcel on which to build the 21st-century American business center. Good schools and safe streets have lured entrepreneurs, investors and labor alike. But it is its business base, the meat and potatoes of any city, that will drive Irvine’s legacy for the next 40 years.