Now a vibrant city with 323,000 residents (as of 2010), Irvine, California, has come a long way during its four decades of existence. A small community of 10,000 already lived in the area when the city officially incorporated in 1971. The annual growth rate during the 1970s averaged a mind-boggling 20 percent. During the 1980s it was still a robust 8 percent, and since then, the city has continued to grow in population by 2 percent a year.
This roller-coaster ride of growth did not stop successive city governments from transforming Irvine into one of the best places to live in the country, according to CNN Money in 2008 and 2012, as well as Businessweek in 2011. And in 2012, the FBI chimed in, reporting that for the eighth year in a row, Irvine topped the list for lowest crime rate among cities with at least 100,000 residents.
A major reason that Irvine is so appealing is that it is a planned community divided into sections called villages. Each village, separated from other villages by six-lane roads, has a unique architectural theme. The city is also an urban garden, of sorts, with 20,000 acres of parks and preserves. Local government intends to keep it that way, following a policy of adding five new acres of park for each increase of 1,000 in its population.
One park, in fact, is a top attraction in Irvine. The 1,347-acre Orange County Great Park occupies land once belonging to the Marine Corps. The park’s “adaptive reuse of existing buildings” maintains the historic feel of World War II-era structures that now serve as a cultural campus for the Palm Court Arts Complex. In addition to art exhibits and musical offerings, the complex brings artists together with the public through its Artists-in-Residence program.
Another corner of the Orange County Great Park offers visitors an entirely different kind of experience. Tethered by a steel cable to the ground, a helium balloon rises 400 feet to serve as a platform with spectacular views of the area. The balloon’s gondola accommodates as many as 30 passengers for this free ride.
When it comes to shops and entertainment, the top shopping mall in Irvine is Spectrum Center. Drawing 15 million visitors each year, this outdoor complex boasts a Ferris wheel and carousel, as well as 130 stores and restaurants. Among the more unusual retailers in this Irvine shopping mall is 41 Olive, which proffers a variety of olive oils, vinegars and spices. An ice skating rink, a comedy club and a cinema round out the mix of businesses in Spectrum Center.
Another top attraction in Irvine is the Barclay Theatre, a joint venture between the city and University of California at Irvine, with private-sector support. A 756-seat auditorium showcases an eclectic array of song and dance performances, ranging from Hawaiian music to flamenco dance. Equipped with a giant screen, the Barclay also hosts a high-definition series of taped performances of live productions at London’s National Theatre.