Opinion: A Yes to the General Plan Housing Update Is a Yes to the Future of Irvine

Irvine Then and Now

I moved to Irvine as a kid in 2009. At this point, it was a city in flux. No longer a patch of suburbs between orange groves, it was a growing city renowned for safety and good schools. The city had just hit 200,000 people, and it has been growing rapidly since then.

Now, I’m a software engineer, and Irvine has grown 50% to 320,000 people and is no longer in flux between a suburb and a city. It is a full-fledged metropolis with more people than Pittsburgh. Big shopping centers dot the various villages, and the cuisines reflect the diversity of the city, with boba shops next door to Hawaiian, Chinese, Indian, and Korean restaurants. In the coming years, the city will rival Minneapolis in population, and a fight has begun for its future, with one side looking toward the coming of a great metropolis, and the other offering a variety of excuses to close Irvine down and turn it into a city-sized gated community.

Drawing of the new mixed-use apartment community currently under construction at The Marketplace, reflecting modern Irvine.

What Is The General Plan Update?

Recently, the city published a proposed update to the General Plan to accommodate needed housing for this growth over the next twenty years, through 2045. California state law requires each city to plan for housing to be built, with specific targets depending on each city’s population and circumstances. This number is called RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation).

Irvine’s required number was 23,000, and while the law does not require that many units to be built by the city, the plan must make it substantially likely that that many units will be built by planning with a buffer. Because it is not guaranteed that a private developer will build any number of units even if the land is zoned for it, the city staff proposed a buffer to allow for a theoretical maximum of 57,000 units to be built, so that the actual average likely to be built exceeds 23,000. There was also a reduced alternative plan to have a smaller buffer and only plan for up to 42,000 units.

Map of the housing focus areas in the General Plan update

Irvine Business Complex, Spectrum, and Great Park are the three focus areas designated for these units, with 90% of them in IBC and Spectrum. There was a contentious hearing before the planning commission, with the commissioners voting 2-2 on the reduced alternative. There was no vote on the 57,000 units plan.

An overwhelming number of people showed up to comment, reflecting the great importance of this to the community, and those in favor of the proposed plan outnumbered the naysayers 2 to 1. 

Why Irvine Should Plan For More Housing

The housing crisis– a shortage of affordable housing

Orange County is going through a housing crisis, and it is most acute here in Irvine, where the median rent as of June 2023 was $4,167. The median home price was $1,362,500. Rent increased 27.2% in 2022 alone. 

In order to address this, Irvine must plan to allow for more housing so that the people who make the city run can afford to live here, and so the city can retain control of how to plan for that housing. The current supply of housing is just not meeting demand– and thus housing costs are skyrocketing.

By law, large developments must contain 15% affordable housing. Affordable in this case means affordable to several different income classifications, which also depend on the city. In Irvine, $80,400 is considered low-income. These are our teachers, nurses, and police officers who otherwise are being priced out by the housing shortage crisis. No city in the world can escape from the truth that housing costs are driven by supply and demand. More housing at market rate lowers prices overall, benefiting everyone, and the legal mandate for affordable housing ensures that more housing is available at prices our essential workers can afford. 

Traffic Mitigation and creating walkable communities through Transit Oriented Development

The General Plan update concentrates dense development near transit and job hubs. This is also why the concerns about increased traffic from meeting our RHNA allotment, while seemingly intuitive, are not to be equated with truth. Because of Irvine’s role as a jobs hub, the greatest increase in traffic happens under the scenarios in which the city builds the least housing, because the people who work in Irvine will not simply phase into and out of existence during work hours. They will live in LA and Inland Empire and commute to Irvine, greatly adding to traffic.

By building housing close to jobs and transit, the amount of driving in Irvine is reduced, reducing vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions These new communities will help facilitate a transition towards walking, cycling, and public transit– which helps with our climate goals given 51% of greenhouse gas emissions in Irvine come from transportation. Mixed-use developments will place many daily essentials within walking distance. Concentrating housing in these job centers will create a sustainable base of resident ridership for existing and new public transit.

A chart comparing how many people can move through the same amount of space in an hour, by mode of transportation

A Master Plan for the 21st century

There are some who want to build little to no new housing supposedly out of a divine reverence for the Master Plan, but these NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard-ers) fundamentally misunderstand the situation. Many of the NIMBYs echoed a rehearsed argument that Irvine should renegotiate with the state to lower the RHNA number. A negotiation of any kind only happens if both parties have leverage, and Irvine has none, while the state has all of it. Irvine already appealed the number and lost its appeal. Several cities already tried challenging their numbers and even the state housing mandate itself, and not a single one has succeeded. Most recently, Huntington Beach failed yet again in its latest legal challenge after millions of dollars spent. And lest anyone think that Huntington Beach was singled out for partisan reasons, San Francisco, both the bastion of liberalism and NIMBYism in the state, was slapped down all the same.

The state has given Irvine a choice. Either Irvine can plan for itself how and where housing should be built, or the state will decide that for Irvine. The deadline to have a compliant General Plan is February 2025, and if Irvine fails to pass one, the state has the right to demand Irvine return its millions in housing grants, suspend Irvine’s zoning authority, and approve housing developments at state level, a process called builder’s remedy. If builder’s remedy is invoked, a developer can request the state approve a housing development with regard only to state law and ignore Irvine’s zoning laws, meaning a developer could build in open space or existing villages.

The General Plan update is the best way for Irvine to maintain a Master Plan because it does not allow development on open space and preserves existing villages. It puts new developments in dense areas so that those who prefer an urban character can have it, while those who prefer a suburban character can also continue to have what they want. This is a carefully thought out and well-planned approach from city staff, and if the city council decides to throw that in the trash, they are implicitly accepting the state government throwing darts at the map for towers in Irvine. No amount of grandstanding or costly lawsuits will change that fact.

Fiscal Responsibility 

Cities with low density sprawl have a lot of infrastructure such as roads and water pipes to maintain, but few residents to pay taxes to maintain them. The city’s infrastructure is relatively new, but eventually the maintenance bills will come due, just like they did in now financially struggling Fullerton. And when they do, Irvine must grow the number of taxpayers without proportionally growing the amount of infrastructure, which is exactly what new higher-density developments achieve. 

Dueling Visions for Irvine

A few people in the city believe it should be exclusive to the “right kinds of people”. Essentially another open-air gated community like Bel Air, Beverly Hills, or Sherman Oaks. 

Meanwhile, students, young professionals trying to get started in life, teachers, nurses, firefighters, police, families looking for good schools, and immigrants are here for Irvine’s opportunities and openness. They are why Irvine grew from orange groves into a city larger than Pittsburgh. And they are concerned that they will not be able to live in the same city they grew up in. 

Orange County is gradually becoming the Irvine Metro Area. We can have a future where Irvine is a major jobs hub, a city with great open spaces, a bustling metropolis in a few select places, a place where people live close to their jobs and don’t have to drive great distances to work, and a center of abundant housing, all while preserving a sanctuary of calm in our established, suburban villages. All the city must do is not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and entertain the NIMBY delusions of becoming Bel Air. All that would result in is the state stepping in and Irvine becoming indistinguishable from the rest of Orange County. 

Here’s to hoping that Irvine embraces its future and can become a city that supports the quality of life of ALL residents (low-income families, the next generation of Gen Z workers), and not just wealthy homeowners.

The people of Irvine are watching the city council, waiting for them to say yes to the city’s future.