The Irvine Co. will soon start an 1,180-home project in Orange — a slice of the land giant’s homebuilding evolution that had a dramatic impact on nearby Santa Ana Mountain foothills.

In this case, the impact — minus this relatively modest residential project — is that the area’s wildlife, scrub brush and red rocks will remain undeveloped forever.

The Orange Heights project is set on 396 acres split by Santiago Canyon Road between Irvine Regional and Peters Canyon parks. It will take Irvine Co. roughly three years to get the land ready for home sales. The hillside community, with views of the Pacific in the distance from its peaks, will have 1,066 single-family residences and 114 multifamily units.

The initial development efforts, with a tab topping $60 million, will include the typical heavy lifting, from grading lots and streets to bringing in utilities. It also will see Irvine Co. paying to relocate a major water pipeline that bisects the land.

Just 36% can afford a Southern California starter home

The construction marks the start of a final chapter for high-profile real estate on the city’s eastern edge. The property has been a long-evolving part of the company’s master plan for its huge land holdings that are roughly one-fifth of Orange County. Orange Heights itself is symbolic of a grand societal challenge — adding sufficient housing for county residents while keeping the area’s natural treasures intact.

It’s hard to fathom that massive development was once approved from the current Orange Heights to well past Irvine Lake. It’s a span of roughly five miles centered around a rural drive that links Orange and Lake Forest through the Santa Ana Mountain foothills.

In 1989, the city approved the far larger site for 12,000 homes and associated commercial real estate spaces on 6,800 acres. That plan was trimmed to 4,000 homes in 2005. In 2010, 20,000 acres of Irvine Co. land nearby — including Limestone, Fremont, Weir and Black Star canyons — were donated to the county as a nature preserve.

Then in 2014, Irvine Co. owner Donald Bren made a bold decision to voluntarily prune Orange Heights development — ending any construction near Irvine Lake and donating 2,500 acres to the county as more open space.

For nature lovers, these moves created a permanent wilderness reserve that essentially stretches from the 91 freeway to Irvine. It adds up to some 57,500 acres of raw land gifted by Bren — never to be developed. All told, Bren’s open-space likings means preservation of raw land on 60% of his Irvine Ranch property, with heritage dating to Mexican and Spanish land grants of 1864.

“Orange Heights reflects our commitment to long-term master planning and open space preservation where balanced communities are surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of preserved natural lands,” said Dave Prolo, president of Irvine Co.’s land and homebuilding operations.

And the Irvine Co. plans to keep a touch of rural feel at Orange Heights. It will create the first link between Irvine Regional and Peters Canyon parks with a horse-friendly trail. Upgrades will also be made to the Mountains to Sea Trail which runs along Jamboree Road.

Related Articles

Housing |

2 years after devastating fire, Mass returns to Mission San Gabriel

Housing |

Fairplex plan includes 10,500 housing units, 200 acres open space in Pomona

Housing |

New museum will showcase OC history through artifacts from early Moulton pioneers

This start on construction made me wonder what this slice of Orange County might be today if some huge level of residential development had gone forward. Note that what remains of Orange Heights is on loosely 5% of the original site.

Map showing the size of original Orange Height project, and what will soon be developed. (Source: Irvine Co.)

What’s certain is that the 1,180 homes to be built certainly won’t be game changers for the county’s housing supply or affordability. But the right mix between development and preservation is often a beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder issue.

Ponder Santiago Canyon Road’s fate west of the toll road as a small example. It’s a street I’ve driven countless times when I choose to take the scenic route between central Orange County and my home in Trabuco Canyon.

The Orange Heights plan means this 1-mile portion of a quirky, curvy two-lane road will get a major makeover to support the new housing. It’ll be an urban-like overhaul — an extra lane for drivers, another one just for bikes, landscaped medians, and sidewalks.

Depending on one’s view, that’s either progress — or distressing change.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at