A 31-unit subdivision proposal going before the Monterey County Planning Commission this week carries a sizable load of controversies. The lots are too small, the location is too rural, the neighbors don’t like the idea at all and the county would have to bend various planning rules to make it work. There are water and traffic issues and more.
The property is along Val Verde Avenue on a pretty stretch of farmland just east of the Crossroads shopping center. The neighbors have hired lawyer Molly Erickson to combat the proposal and she has responded with considerable evidence of the project’s inadvisability. (Click the link for Erickson’s letter to the county planners in advance of Wednesday’s public hearing on the project. The county staff, by the way, recommends approval, largely because the project would add some units of affordable housing albeit on substandard lots)
But what is unusually interesting about this venture is the ownership. The property owner and applicant is Carmel Rio Road LLC, a limited partnership headed by Ray Wirta, who is the CEO of international real estate giant CBRE and president of the Irvine Company, the real estate behemoth that made Orange County what it is today.
The names of CBRE and the Irvine Company don’t’ show up in the thick county file on the project, which, in slightly larger form, was turned down by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in 2012. But Wirta’s name on the application creates speculation that it may represent an unlikely attempt by the Irvine Company to dip a toe into Monterey County’s development waters to find out how accommodating they may be to Irvine Company-style mega development.
A call to Wirta’s office in Orange County went unreturned Monday, but the project’s local representative, Brian Clark of Sand City, answered a few questions about the venture. He said Wirta’s involvement is simply that of an owner and that it amounts to a personal investment unrelated to the Irvine Company. Clark, who is in the loan business, said he has known Wirta for 30 years and persuaded him to invest. When the venture went before the county five years ago, noted Big Sur builder Bill Mcleod of Post Ranch fame was listed as a partner and he remains involved in some capacity.
The Central Coast would not seem to be fertile ground for an operation as big and aggressive as the Irvine Company, but land anywhere near the California coast has proved to be an irresistible investment lure for those who prefer subdivisions to sand dunes.
The Irvine Company practically invented Orange County, which grew from 220 residents in 1950 to more than 700,000 in 1960. Worth more than $15 billion, the Irvine Company’s principal owner, Donald Bren, is the nation’s richest real estate investor. According to Forbes, he owns 57,000 apartment units, mostly in California, along with 500 office buildings and more than 40 shopping centers, including the sprawling Fashion Island in Newport Beach. From its Orange County base, the Irvine Company has expanded into major real estate markets across the country, including Silicon Valley in the past couple of years.
Unlike Donald Bren, whose name has been attached to numerous of his ventures and philanthropies, Wirta is largely unknown outside real estate circles – but he is a giant within them.
For the last several years he has simultaneously been CEO of CBRE, the world’s largest real estate investment conglomerate, CEO of The Koll Company and managing partner of at least two other real estate enterprises. At the same time, he is president of investment properties for the Irvine Company. He previously served as CEO of the Bolsa Chica Company, which for decades pursued one of the the most controversial real estate ventures in California history. Several years ago, he formed an entity known as Rich Uncles REIT to solicit small investors into the real estate investment trust market.