Scott Burnham and Bryon Ward: The Moguls

Two and a half years ago, Jeff Duggan of Portola Coffee was full of enthusiasm for his move to the South Coast Collection. “It's going to be Orange County's answer to the Ferry Building market in San Francisco,” he told the Weekly in 2010. We nodded indulgently. A major nexus of design and food in Orange County? Riiiight.

Fastforward 30 months to any typical Saturday morning in the dense warren of shops that makes up the SoCo Collection and the OC Mix, and the line for Duggan's Portola Coffee snakes around the obliquely angled hallways. A couple browses through Deer Lovely, looking at the artisanal clothes for sale; from next door, Maxwell Frederick talks about German cheese with a woman planning a party; and a young boy asks to go see if the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity is hosting one of its occasional children's drawing workshops.

Outside, shoppers make their way slowly from Rolling Greens through the SoCo Farmers Market to the Orange County outpost of Surfas; small clots of people cross the entrance to the newly opened, enormous Design Within Reach. People stroll through Fixtures Living, where clients can try out kitchens before buying them. It's the closest thing Orange County has to a village square; if you walk through the OC Mix on any given day, you'll see someone you know.

So who are the modern-day Segerstroms behind the SoCo Collection? While Scott Burnham and Bryon Ward are unknown to most Orange Countians, they are well-known to anyone who has worked in commercial real estate in the past 20-plus years. Burnham graduated from USC and has worked in OC commercial real estate for almost 40 years; Ward is a former wunderkind and senior executive at Grubb Ellis. They look like any other developers, but behind those ties lies a spark of genius.

“The Orange County retail and food perspective can be sterile sometimes,” says Burnham. “The alternatives are often chains,” which is just a nod to Orange County's stereotypical love affair with safe, preportioned life experiences.

Fair enough. But why the emphasis on food, specifically farm-to-table experiences? “Food is an expression of design,” says Ward. “People who care about design care about food, too.” This means there won't ever be a chain restaurant at SoCo; it doesn't fit into Burnham and Ward's vision for the property.

The men are mavericks in that they don't fill space just to fill space; the tenants of the OC Mix are the most carefully curated in the county. Burnham and Ward will bend over backward to build out for the right tenant, and they turn away potentially more lucrative businesses. The space in the complex is 100 percent committed at this point, which seems impossible given how choosy they have been in order to avoid redundancy and mismatches. “There are always ways to get the right people in,” says Burnham, “but we're at the point now where people are coming to us.”

Just because the property is nominally full doesn't mean the work stops; there are improvements planned for the farmers' market, and they're considering starting a night market, something Orange County desperately needs. There will be more and bigger charity events, there are ideas for a coffee-making museum, and they're planning to build a large herb garden for Greenleaf Chopshop.

It took 30 months—the blink of an eye in development terms—but Orange County has its downtown.

See our full OC Weekly 2013 People Issue

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