Irvine, California

Irvine, population 212,375 (2010), extends from the coastal hills south of Newport Beach to the inland Santa Ana Mountains in the center of Orange County, California. The City is a large, planned community developed from a single landholding and strives to have a balance of commercial, industrial and institutional uses as well as residential neighborhoods.

In addition to having a balance of uses city-wide, Irvine promotes mixed-use projects within its commercial center, the Irvine Business Complex, or IBC. Before the City was incorporated, Orange County zoning limited office uses to no more than 50 percent of the floor area of new projects with the exception of corporate headquarters. This provision was designed to create dwelling units near job sites in an effort to reduce the transportation problems caused by the separation of jobs and housing.

When the City of Irvine was formed, it retained the requirement that no more than 50 percent of a new IBC project could be office space. However, some developers preferred not to build mixed-use projects and by the late 1970s, there was considerable pressure for the City to allow all-office developments. With a particular project in mind, Irvine adopted a TDR ordinance which would allow an all-office development at a receiving site as long as the residential requirements which would normally be required at the receiving site are met by residential development at a sending site. However, the requirements of the ordinance were so specific that only one project used the TDR provisions before they were finally removed from the code.

In 1993, Irvine adopted a second TDR program. This new program helps to implement a general plan amendment and zoning code change for the Irvine Business Complex which establishes development intensity limits designed to ensure that future traffic can be accommodated by the planned circulation system. The City also imposed vehicle trip fees to fund the planned circulation improvements. To maintain the effectiveness of the circulation system yet provide flexibility in the location of new development, Irvine adopted a trip-based transfer of development rights program similar to those found in Cupertino, California and Burbank, California.

The 1993 TDR provisions remain largely unchanged as of this update in August 2011 except for the fact that trips are now referred to as Development Intensity Values (DIV). The following profile retains the original terminology.


In the original Irvine program, (now eliminated), potential sending sites were IBC properties which had an approved conditional use permit (CUP) for mixed use with residential, office and residential or residential only. The potential receiving sites also had to be within the IBC and have an approved TDR CUP. A TDR CUP required a recommendation from the transportation commission and approval from the planning commission following at least one public hearing. The decision of the planning commission could be appealed to the city council.

To approve a TDR CUP, the planning commission had to either find that the proposed project would not adversely affect the surrounding transportation system or require the applicant to mitigate any adverse impacts to specified levels of service. In addition, the project had to provide predetermined percentages of low-income and very-low-income housing units. If the proposed transfer would result in an exceeding of the density or intensity limits found in the city’s general plan, the TDR CUP could not be approved unless a general plan amendment was also adopted.

Before transfers could occur, an agreement restricting the sending site to residential uses had to be approved by the City and recorded. Approval of a TDR CUP allowed the transfer of additional development potential from a sending site to a receiving site using a point system that converted residential units to office floor area at a 1:1 transfer ratio. The approval allowed the receiving site to be entirely office with the receiving site’s residential requirements being met by the residential development located at the sending site.

Irvine’s second TDR program, which became effective in 1993, has a different purpose than the first TDR program. The second TDR program was adopted as part of a general plan amendment/zoning code amendment for the IBC. This amendment established development intensity limits on all property in the IBC to ensure that future development could be accommodated by the transportation system. The planned transportation system can accommodate a floor area ratio of 0.25 on every property in the IBC plus all existing or approved developments which exceed FAR 0.25. If the existing development on a site has less than 0.25 FAR, it is said to have additional zoning potential.

Additional zoning potential is calculated using a multi-step formula that expresses building intensity in terms of afternoon (PM) vehicle trips.

  1. Calculate maximum allowed floor area ratio by multiplying the site area by 0.25.
  2. Multiply the maxi-mum floor area from 1 by the office trip generation rate to yield the allowed PM vehicle trips for the site.
  3. Calculate the PM trips for all land uses existing on or approved for the site by multiplying the floor area in each land use category by the trip generation rate for that category.
  4. Determine the unused trips by subtracting the results of step 3 from the results of step 2.
  5. The additional zoning potential can be expressed as floor area by taking the number of unused trips, as calculated in step 4, and dividing these trips by the trip generation rate of the land use or mix of land uses proposed for the site.

Irvine’s new code provisions allow additional zoning potential to be transferred between sites within the IBC. These transfers require the approval of Transfer of Development Master Plans (TDRMP) or CUPs for both the sending and receiving sites. The applications for these TDRMPs must include conceptual site plans and adjusted trip budgets for both sites.

To approve these applications, the City must find that the proposed transfer would not negatively impact infrastructure and public services in general and the circulation system specifically. The sending site is not allowed to have a post-transfer intensity of less than 0.125 FAR office-equivalency unless the site is dedicated to the City for public use or unless the applicant can demonstrate that a viable development project can function on the site with an FAR of less than FAR 0.125.

As a condition of approval, the applicant must record an agreement between the sending and receiving sites which states the transferred trips and the remaining trips available to both sites. Irvine also requires the payment of a TDR fee of $500 per PM trip.

Program Status

Under the original Irvine program, the demand for all-office development was strong, creating a motivation for developers to use TDR. However, the 1:1 transfer ratio provided little incentive and the TDR process itself required hearings, discretionary approvals and mitigation of transportation impacts.

According to Pam Davis, Senior Planner for the City of Irvine, the criteria written into the Irvine ordinance were so specific that only one sending site and one receiving site qualified. Consequently, the ordinance succeeded in facilitating one transfer, which resulted in the construction of a 400-unit apartment complex in the IBC and an all-office complex on a separate IBC receiving site. However, no other developments used the ordinance and the original TDR provisions were ultimately removed from the Irvine code.

The 1993 TDR program has several features often found in successful TDR programs. The owners of potential sending sites which are already developed at a density of less than 0.25 FAR may often be motivated to sell TDR rather than demolish existing projects and rebuild just to fully utilize the maximum 0.25 FAR limit. Similarly, the relatively low 0.25 density limit should motivate potential receiving site owners to acquire TDR in order to satisfy a demand for higher-density development. Additionally, the $500 fee per PM peak-hour trip translates to a reasonable fee of approximately 69 cents per square foot of office space, which should not significantly discourage developers from using the program.

In August 2011, Bill Jacobs, head of Advance Planning for Irvine, reported that several projects have used the TDR option. He added that the City now facilitates TDR use by not requiring a separate CUP to approve transfers between sites within the same Transportation Analysis Zone.