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Newport Beach

Volume 7, Issue 6  |  January 21, 2022


Cattle and kids’ dreams: an early look at Newport Coast

By DUNCAN FORGEY

In 1960, four Horace Ensign school buddies hitched a ride in a neighbor’s  ‘57 Rambler station wagon. Grungy green with fins, the car looked pretty cool with three heavy longboards strapped firmly to its roof racks. Little did these partners-in-crime know that they were about to embark on an adventure suitable to be told to future grandchildren. As they passed Tillie MacCulloch’s Hurley Bell and exited Corona del Mar, they entered the beloved “buffer zone.” The kids spent the entire day surfing soft and consistent three-foot waves at Scotchman’s Cove, on a classic warm summer day with light winds and tidepools full of critters.

The “buffer zone” was a vast expanse of rolling hills bordering Newport Beach and CdM to the north and Laguna Beach to the south. Local youth invaded its massive hills to hassle grazing cattle, box slide, hunt snakes, ride dirt bikes and play hide and seek with Irvine Ranch security. Part of the immense Irvine Ranch, the “buffer zone” emitted a comforting country feel to the marine and nautical culture surrounding Newport Harbor. This down-the-coast section of sand and coves was one of the most beautiful of the Ranch’s nearly 90,000 acres.

Cattle and kids' Buffalo Ranch

Courtesy of Yesterland

Empty Hills of Newport Beach-Buffalo Ranch

In an incredible makeover, the Irvine Ranch began losing its serenity and natural beauty around the time the Irvine Ranch became known as the Irvine Company. Newly installed business leaders partnered with an endless line of developers to create hundreds of planned residential communities on ranch lands. Approximately 9,000 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean would become one of the finest real estate collaborations in Southern California history. The “buffer zone” was redesigned and reborn as Newport Coast.

In ancient geological times, the entire ridge was underwater. As a huge prehistoric ocean receded, human travelers from northern ice lands settled the area. These passive Native Americans were blessed and spoiled with an overabundance of food, mild weather and a peaceful culture emphasizing trade.  They were the first to enjoy Southern California’s once famous laid-back lifestyle.

A modern transformation began soon after California’s Gold Rush. As California became a state, thousands moved westward and eyes turned to the expansive lands in the southern part of the state. James Irvine bought his ranch lands for $4.32 an acre in 1864. The Irvine Ranch ultimately supported some 100,000 acres and would become the driving force behind Orange County’s tremendous growth. The Ranch sold land to assist in the development of Tustin, Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa, Corona del Mar and many other municipalities.  These partnerships started a long legacy of using Irvine land for massive development throughout the county. This included building from scratch the University of California at Irvine and the adjoining master-planned City of Irvine. In Newport Beach, Bay Shores, Linda Isle, Irvine Terrace, Big Canyon, Dover Shores, Harbor Ridge and other fine neighborhoods helped kill the tiny seaside port of Newport/Balboa by moving into local ranch lands and creating the modern metropolitan city that exists today.

Cattle and kids' bulldozers

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of First American Title

Bulldozers in Eastbluff

The Irvine Company, wanting their communities to reach the ocean, partnered with Newport Beach and the State of California with aggressive plans for the “buffer zone.” In a Sherman-like “march to the sea,” government officials adorned endless empty acres with new neighborhoods and thousands of homes. It took an incredibly large number of builders, bankers and bureaucrats armed with a battalion of bulldozers and decades of effort to rearrange the empty land. In a trade with California, the Irvine Company sold its oceanfront property to the state for the rights to develop extensively throughout the hills. This resulted in the protected portion of Crystal Cove Park and its accompanying coves and beaches.

Cattle and kids' newspaper

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Sherman Library & Gardens

A newspaper article touting the growth of early Newport Beach

In the 1980s, early developments like Pelican Hill and Pelican Point created luxurious home sites around an impeccably designed Pelican Hill Golf Course.  Scattered around these exclusive enclaves were the neighborhoods of Ocean Ridge, Montserrat, The Pointe, St. Michel and Santa Lucia allowing for smaller and less expensive homes. A legion of companies including Taylor Woodrow, Lewis Homes, Standard Pacific, Greystone, RGC, custom builders and others successfully designed and constructed Mediterranean-style neighborhoods, all under the constrictive eyes of an Irvine Master Plan. Bramalea Homes sold residences for $1,550,000 to $2,550,000, and became one of the unique “casualties” during this barrage of activity and speculation. As the economy softened and the decade of the ‘90s began, homes were foreclosed and projects slowed to a crawl.

Original prices in Newport Coast ranged from condominiums in the $200,000s to modest single-family homes beginning in the $400,000 range.  Later developments, including Perazul, Tesoro Villas, Rivage, Watermark, Campobello and Crystal Cove, offset larger custom home lots available in the pricier neighborhoods. Adding to all of this, were two commercial centers providing for the personal needs of the developing community.

In the original plans, the pièce de résistance was to be Wishbone Hill. This extensive and extremely exclusive neighborhood would attract the highest-end clientele. Wishbone Hill was a series of multi-acre sites, starting from $5,000,000, suitable for custom homes. These expansive properties would be the finest of the fine.

Due to the economics of a slowing economy, Wishbone Hill never came to fruition. Financial risks forced the Irvine Company to “put pencil to the paper” and reevaluate its goals. A decision was made that the highest and best use for this last part of Newport Coast was to maximize the number of homes, thus increasing the client base and therefore profits. Growing out of the demise of Wishbone Hill was Crystal Cove, which remains one of the most desired luxury addresses in the state.

Cattle and kids' Irvine home

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of the Duncan Forgey Collection

The Irvine family home in Corona del Mar

It is a well-known fact that progress is inevitable unless it is outlawed. Urban sprawl starts small, like in the tiny hamlet of Balboa at the beginning of the 20th century. Little by little, urban life grabs up more and more vacant land. Southern California’s megalopolis is a prime example of what happens when vacant lands become available for development with little restriction.

Today, Teslas and BMWs fly past Newport Coast like they are driving on a freeway. There is no visual escape from “city” views unless you drive nearly three hours east or south to Camp Pendleton. Currently there are approximately 3,186,989 people living in The OC and 85,694 in Newport Beach. This is a far cry from the 703,925 in Orange County and the 26,564 in Newport Beach in 1960.  In the decade between 1960 and 1970, these populations would practically double.

Cattle and kids' Newport Coast

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Kevin Pellon (Instagram @socalsnapz) 

Picturesque Newport Coast

The vast majority of newcomers to Newport Beach are unaware of this history and how dramatic these changes have been. They love today’s Newport Beach for everything that it offers.

This affection for Newport Beach can be summarized in the words of a worldly friend of mine in 1989. Over a lunch on the Reuben E. Lee, he told me why he moved to Newport Beach: “I have lived and worked in many places; the Middle East, Europe, the East Coast and South America. In all my extensive travels, I have NEVER lived in a place better than Newport Beach. It has the best weather, the best opportunities for work and the best social environment. I am blessed to have ended up here.”

With that in mind, it is time that in this new year, we all be thankful for the chance to live and enjoy this city at its current best. 

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Duncan Forgey, a lifelong resident of Newport Beach, now makes his home in Hawaii. He is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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