Donald Bren is a media genius. Sure, he gets mad props for being a hotshot political operator who controls all five members of the county Board of Supervisors. And he gets lots of attention for being the billionaire financial wizard in charge of the Irvine Co., the county's largest and most powerful landowner. But not nearly enough time is spent lauding him for his shrewd ability to manipulate the media.
Witness John Balzar's gushing, embarrassing May 29 Los Angeles Times piece on Bren's decision to preserve 11,000 acres of scrubland as permanent open space. The big guy wouldn't even talk to Balzar for the story, choosing only to send an e-mail response to his fawning questions, but the reporter genuflected anyway.
"Underfoot is treasure," Balzar wrote of the land he visited. "This region's gold. Bren has just given this land to me. And to you, and to the future. Someone else can take a guess at the market value of this gift. Posterity will record it as priceless. Thanks are owed, and I'm happy to deliver mine."
Balzar's piece is just the latest in a long line of media gifts to Bren dating back to Nov. 22, 2001, when the LA Times first announced that the Irvine Co. was planning to preserve "several thousand acres" of land.
A week later, both the Times and The Orange County Register reported the "lavish celebration" Bren put on to announce his gift. "Open space is freedom," reported the Times. The Register, for its part, described the land as "mostly rugged canyons."
Actually, the land is a lot of rocky hillsides and sheer canyon walls. And remember, in Orange County, acreage is calculated vertically as well as horizontally. The land is also crawling with a lot of endangered species, like the gnatcatchers and an open space not containing a Barnes and Noble.
In other words, you can't build houses on it, except by bombing it flat. But the next day, the gift was still big news. The Reg praised Bren for his "magnificent gift" in a staff editorial. The piece also called on environmentalists to quit their "NIMBY" whining and just be happy that Bren has given them such wonderful land. That same day, the Times quoted numerous environmentalists about how much they appreciated the land grant.
End of story? Not quite.
On Dec. 2, 2001, Dana Parsons of the Times finally weighed in with his inevitable column, saying he believed that Bren gave the county the land because of his need for a preservation legacy and that everyone should just accept "the 69-year-old captain of industry's" gift as an act of love.
Four days later, the Register found a new angle: how the 11,000-acre gift further adds to the Laguna Canyon preserve.
Then, for three months, neither paper wrote about the gift. Finally, on March 10, 2002, the Times went in a new direction, reporting for the first time that Bren's gift "could also reap the company hundreds of millions of dollars in tax deductions." The story, which finally elaborated a financial reason for Bren's generosity—and should have come out back in November—then disappeared.
On April 28, 2002, the Register wrote about the land gift yet again, this time reporting on the Laguna Canyon Foundation honoring Bren for the grant.
That's 10 stories on a single land grant, only one of which even hinted that more than simply good-natured generosity could have affected Bren's thinking. And not one described the land accurately: as rocky, environmentally sensitive land too expensive and delicate for adequate development.
More important, all of the stories failed to put the gift—from a developer—into a development context. And this is where Bren's genius shines through. A gift of land can bring tax advantages, but it can also draw attention away from far more controversial projects. Bren recently opened more than 3 million square feet of research and office space in Irvine. And more—a lot more—is on its way:
•Mountain Park in Anaheim will have 3,000 homes.
•Santiago Hills in East Orange will have 2,500 homes.
•Quail Ridge in Irvine will host 1,400 homes, 1,100 apartments and a million square feet of office space.
•Turtle Ridge in Irvine will have 1,100 homes and 500 apartments.
•Shady Canyon in Irvine will boast 400 estates, with values up to $10 million, and a 300-acre golf course.
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•Irvine's Northern Sphere, wrapping around two sides of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, will hold 12,350 homes, 730,000 square feet of retail space, and 6.6 million square feet of research and industrial parks spread out over 7,700 acres—twice the developable land of the El Toro base itself.
All of these developments will cost the county plenty. More traffic will clog roads. More sewage will fill the ocean. More smog will choke the skies. More stucco and Spanish tile will cover the hillsides.
"All Bren wants to do is build, build, build," one of his powerful political supporters once said very quietly to the Weekly.
Apparently, no one wants to say—or print—anything like that.