NEWPORT BEACH – After more than 40 years, work on the community of Newport Coast is nearly finished, leaving perhaps the best example of Irvine Co. efforts to mold much of Orange County into a master-planned paradise.
With more than 95 percent of the lots sold, the final product is a miniature city on a hill, boasting more than 2,500 homes, 36 holes of ocean-view golf, many miles of hiking trails, a long strand of beach, luxury timeshares, fine-dining restaurants and a resort where nightly rates start at $695.
"Newport Coast has exceeded our expectations," said Rob Elliott, a senior vice president at the Irvine Co. "When we started the planning for this community, we knew that we would be working with some of the best remaining coastal land in California, and had an obligation to create not only a magnificent coastal community, but also one that respected the value of open-space preservation for habitat and recreation."
More so than any of the firm's developments, Newport Coast was conceived with the belief that perfection is possible, if not easily affordable. Pleasantville meets Bel Air.
"I worry a little bit that my kids are getting a jaded look at how people really live in America," said resident Rick Russell, a father of two who works in real estate. "I took them up to properties in Long Beach, and they asked me, 'Do people really live here?'"
Newport Coast's image as a bubble is enhanced by more than the wealth of its inhabitants. Towering arches at the main entrance off Pacific Coast Highway, for example, are favorite targets of populist sneering. "Icons of superficiality," a Register columnist declared in 2000.
There's also the fact that every community in Newport Coast is gated, and there are even gated communities within gated communities.
"Most of these individuals are very, very, very private individuals," says Thomas G. Veal, an Irvine Co. vice president. "These are high net-worth individuals, so they are very concerned about security."
The irony is, the creation of the ultra-exclusive enclave gave all of Orange County access to near-pristine real estate, with the Irvine Co. selling the land that would become Crystal Cove State Park as part of its effort to get approval for Newport Coast.
"I think it's fantastic that they made this reserve – that's huge," said resident Mike Kollen. "The rest of Orange County is wall-to-wall homes."
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It should be noted that the Irvine Co.'s benevolence materialized after it was hit with lawsuits that threatened to stall the development.
In the mid-1960s, when company planners hopped around the Mediterranean for architectural inspiration, the concept called for 50,000 dwellings in what was then known as the Irvine Coast.
Later iterations of the plan included 10-story office towers and a quartet of hotels, but in the end, about 80 percent of Newport Coast's nearly 10,000 acres was preserved as open space.
"It would have been much worse" without pushback from environmental groups, said Fern Pirkle of Friends of the Newport Coast, which led a pair of court challenges.
Newport Coast broke ground in 1990, and as it developed, the area was populated by significant numbers of well-to-do minorities, a contrast to the populace of Newport Beach, which eventually annexed the development.
Newport Coast is about 68 percent white, while the rest of Newport Beach is more than 90 percent white, according to estimates by demographics analysis firm Claritas.
"The ethnicity in the schools is much more diverse," said Russell, whose wife is Persian and who moved to the community from Corona del Mar.
"It's an eclectic mix up here," added John McMonigle, one of Orange County's more prominent real estate agents. "I wouldn't call it a melting pot, but there's an eclectic mix of people from around the world."
Celebrities also call Newport Coast home, including author Dean Koontz, tech-billionaire Henry T. Nicholas and future NBA hall-of-famer Kobe Bryant.
The type of buyer is unique, too. Whereas some spend millions to be neighbors with shirtless frat boys and other party animals in West Newport, the homeowner in Newport Coast will find a carefully staged environment where flower gardens are symmetrical, and even the gardeners are nicely dressed.
"I refer to this as being very civilized," McMonigle said.
And very expensive. An empty lot in Crystal Cove can sell for $15 million, and a recent glance at listings found three dozen Newport Coast homes with asking prices above $5 million, including the $57 million Villa del Lago, which features a lake, equestrian stables and a wine cave.
That's not to say your average upper-middle-class professional can't get behind the gates, as there are a good number of townhomes in the $500,000-$750,000 range.
Some condos, such as the one owned by resident Joni Parenti, have city lights views that, in her words, "look better at night than the ocean."
The appeal of the Irvine Co.'s master-planning masterpiece is simple, Parenti suggested, and before setting out on the Pacific Ridge Trail, she gestured to the sweeping canyons, the immaculate mansions, the impossibly green grass at Coastal Peak Park.
"We love it up here," she said. "I mean, look around."