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How ‘vibrant people, triumph, tragedy’ formed Irvine Ranch

Michael Stockstill and H. Pike Oliver, authors of “Transforming the Irvine Ranch: Joan Irvine, William Pereira, Ray Watson, and the Big Plan,” in Irvine on Monday, February 13, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Michael Stockstill, co-author of “Transforming the Irvine Ranch: Joan Irvine, William Pereira, Ray Watson, and the Big Plan,” in Irvine on Monday, February 13, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

H. Pike Oliver, co-author of “Transforming the Irvine Ranch: Joan Irvine, William Pereira, Ray Watson, and the Big Plan,” in Irvine on Monday, February 13, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Watson pedestrian bridge, named after Ray Watson, crosses from University Center to UC Irvine over Campus Drive in Irvine on Monday, February 13, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The steps to the Watson pedestrian bridge, named after Ray Watson, crosses from University Center to UC Irvine over Campus Drive in Irvine on Monday, February 13, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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C. Michael Stockstill used to tell his friend and former Irvine Company colleague H. Pike Oliver that someday he would write a book about the Irvine Ranch.

Someday came in late March 2020.

As the Covid-19 pandemic upended everyday life, Stockstill who goes by “Mike” emailed “Pike” a proposal: “Remember that book that I was going to work on? How would you like to be a co-author?”

The result is “Transforming the Irvine Ranch: Joan Irvine, William Pereira, Ray Watson and The Big Plan.” Presented in chronological order, this book tells how 93,000 acres of agriculture and ranch land that stretches 9 miles along the coast and 22 miles inland in Orange County became one of the largest master-planned communities in the United States.

According to the Irvine Co., it spans the city of Irvine and parts of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Tustin, Orange and Anaheim. It also encompasses portions of Santa Ana and Costa Mesa.

Stockstill and Oliver overlay the story with the history of the pioneering Irvine family, most notably the heiress Joan Irvine Smith, great-granddaughter of Irvine Ranch founder James Irvine and granddaughter of the James Irvine Foundation founder James Irvine II. She died in December 2019 at 86.

“I’ve described it to people as almost Shakespearean,” said Stockstill, who spent 13 years in public relations at the Irvine Co. beginning in 1978. “It’s full of very vibrant people; triumph; tragedy. The story was just waiting to be told.”

Southern California News Group caught up with Stockstill and Oliver, both in their early 70s, to talk about the book, which draws on decades of archival materials, including oral histories, published works and personal recollections. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Were there any surprising tidbits you learned while researching the book that you didn’t know before?

Stockstill: When I was at the Irvine Co., and you asked around about the James Irvine Foundation, the typical response was, ‘Oh, it was a bunch of JI’s old cronies from Orange County and San Francisco.’ It was dismissive.

When you get into their lives, you find out this is not the case — particularly Loyall McLaren. McLaren was a very astute businessman painted as the villain, largely by Joan Irvine. She repeatedly claimed that he had inveigled her grandfather into setting up the foundation (which would, after patriarch James Irvine II’s death, hold a majority share of the Irvine Co.) to undo her and mistreat her. The other guy was Brad Hellis — again, this is a very substantial guy.

Hellis grew up three doors down from the Irvine family. He played with (JI’s sons) James Jr. and Myford; he was the general manager of the ranch for 35 years. But when Joan got on the board of directors (of the Irvine Co. in 1957), she turned on Hellis and exposed a land deal (to purchase a 100,000-acre ranch in Montana) he was involved in. The more you learn about it, it probably was not unusual given how James Irvine did business. But rather than fight as McLaren did for the next 20 years, Hellis decided he’d had enough (and retired).

Oliver: One thing I didn’t know I learned during our research was that the Irvine Co. came close to forming a (70/30 partnership) with a New York developer that would have taken things in a different direction (by turning over the planning and building expertise to the new partner).

Joan and her mother didn’t like the idea of a profit share going to another party. That triggered an interesting (law) provision in West Virginia, where the Irvine Co. was incorporated.  A shareholder with at least a 20% interest (as Joan and her mother’s stock holdings amounted to) could veto a change of control, so (the women) put the kibosh on that (venture). That is what led to the company organizing itself behind (the Irvine Ranch) development.

Q: I was surprised to learn that Balboa Island served as a model of sorts. Can you describe how it played into the overall vision?

Stockstill: Ray liked the fact that it was a contained place. He kept coming back to this idea of “a sense of place.” He wanted to create something people identified with, so he used Balboa Island because it had specific edges.

But Ray said over and over again, “We were deciding as we went along.”

Oliver: Nobody had done this before. They were all young. But at the same time, they were all very well-educated and research-oriented. They did their homework and figured out how to make things work.

Q: How faithful to the original plan is Irvine Ranch?

Oliver: We were fortunate to get our hands on a leather-bound volume of not the final plan but a pretty final draft that the Pereira firm put together in August of ’61, and if you look at the documents in there and then look at what’s on the ground today, it’s pretty amazing.

It has been implemented.

Q: Has Irvine Ranch become a model for other communities?

Oliver: To a degree. If you draw a 5-mile radius around John Wayne Airport, there are probably more site planning and residential architecture firms there than anywhere else in North America and they cut their teeth on the work they did for the Irvine Co. and have taken it all over the country and all over the world. Now as far as the scale: There just aren’t many land holdings that get developed in a master plan at this scale, but there are some.

Look at Summerlin in Las Vegas. That’s about a 23,000-acre plan that’s largely completed now and that was modeled in many ways after Irvine.

C. Michael Stockstill

Profession: Writer

Hometown: Irvine

Experience: Mike is a retired public affairs consultant who writes for national magazines. His professional career includes 13 years at the Irvine Company where (among other issues) he worked on the multi-year effort to pass a half-cent sales tax for local transportation improvements.

Education: Graduated with a journalism degree from Humboldt State University.

When his interest in the Irvine Ranch began: When I worked at the Irvine Co. in the public relations department, the standing commentary was, Well, who’s going to write the book, The Big Ranch? We were all very well aware while working and promoting the company of the company’s history. Pike had left, but at the point that I was there when Ray Watson came back to the company at (Irvine Co. CEO Donald) Bren’s invitation as kind of a roving business ambassador. I’d see him in the halls and meetings and hear him say, “Oh, I’m going to put that in the book.” As it turned out, he wrote six chapters that are essentially this book and gave two very long oral histories. Just one of Ray’s oral histories runs to 535 pages. Finding that this base of information existed was a great boost to get us started.

H. Pike Oliver

Profession: Planner

Hometown: Scottsdale

Experience: Pike, as he goes by, has worked on real estate development strategies and master-planned communities since the early 1970s including nearly eight years at the Irvine Co. Early in his career, he worked for public agencies and taught real estate development at Cornell University and the University of Washington.

Education: Graduated from San Francisco State University’s urban studies and planning program and holds a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA.

When his interest in the Irvine Ranch began: I was a high school student when in September 1963 when I came across a Time magazine article about William Pereira and the planning for the Irvine Ranch. Fifteen years later, by coincidence and circumstance, I went to work for the Irvine Co. (as a planner). I made it my business to get to know people who had been there in the years before us. They are the over 40 people we interviewed for the book, many in their late 80s and early 90s.

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