Business and Philanthropy Transform Exurbia (Orange County)

  • Local Projects
  • 1986

His whole life long, Henry Segerstrom introduced himself as a farmer. His Swedish immigrant family had grown lima beans in Orange County in southern California near an area that some locals derisively called “goat hill,” with an eye to its stark lack of amenities. Even after the region became a heavily populated bedroom community for Los Angeles, Orange County was often thought of as a place devoid of services, entertainment, or any coherent “downtown.” Farmer Segerstrom changed all of that. He began by erecting, in the middle of his family’s agricultural spread, an early indoor mall that he called South Coast Plaza. He gradually grew it into today’s highest-grossing shopping center in the U.S.

The middle-class families who bought homes to raise their children in suburban Orange County now had a place they could buy things. But Segerstrom didn’t stop there. He realized they would also hunger for places they could walk with neighbors, enjoy the outdoors, and take in the arts. Eventually they would also want their own office towers, businesses, and other economic engines so they wouldn’t have to commute north to Los Angeles to earn their bread. So he went to work to create a new urban form, what some people have called an “edge city.”

He did this by adding a heavy dose of philanthropy to his keen real-estate-developer instincts. His first step was to donate land and money to build a little drama company with talented leaders into the South Coast Repertory Theater, which soon attracted enthusiastic audiences and drew acclaim as one of the finest institutions of its type. Then Segerstrom repeated that success on a larger scale—donating land and money in 1979 to create a large center that would host other performing arts: orchestras, dance companies, choruses, and Broadway shows. This ambitious cultural hub was built without a penny of public money.

Critics predicted doom for a music and dance mecca perched in a “suburban wasteland,” but it opened in 1986 and rapidly became the germ of a booming arts district. Fountains, plazas, and landscaping created beautiful spaces, and in 2006 the theater and performance auditorium were matched with a dramatic new adjoining Segerstrom Concert Hall. Henry Segerstrom picked Cesar Pelli to design that rippling-glass building, and donated valuable land plus  $50 million to bring it into existence. Around 2019, the Orange County Museum of Art will become the next addition to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. It too will spring up on Segerstrom-donated land, and be funded with donations from his family and many local donors who have rallied behind his lead to become patrons of the area’s public life.

Woven around these philanthropically generated art anchors are an attractive mix of gardens, restaurants, retail shops, manicured office towers, private condos and apartments, public art, and even a dramatic landscape installation by Isamu Noguchi. The mix of private and philanthropic development is seamless, highly successful, and quite unique compared to the ways cities have conventionally grown up.

What is now essentially Orange County’s downtown is not a clone of Los Angeles. It remains low-key, leafy, easy to park, not-entirely-urban. Yet it is rich in visual beauty and artistic and commercial choices. And it is booming as its own independent economy. It’s an urban village of an unusual and distinctly American type, wrested into being by an entrepreneurial philanthropic vision.