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When a vision for the future becomes reality

Henry Segerstrom in 1999 during the construction of the Unity Bridge.

When Elizabeth Segerstrom met her late husband, the real estate developer and arts philanthropist Henry Segerstrom, he was on business in Manhattan. One of my favorite stories Elizabeth tells involves how he always talked on their dates about a place she’d never heard of.
Finally, the Polish-born New Yorker couldn’t take it anymore. “Henry,” she said, “what is this place, ‘South Coast Plaza’?”

“So you don’t … know?” (A twinkle must have sparkled in his eye.)

“Know about what?”

She laughs at the memory. “I think he got the biggest kick out of that,” she says before continuing the story: “Then he smiled and said, ‘Well, once upon a time, there was no South Coast Plaza…’ .”

It’s hard for many of us to imagine what that time before South Coast Plaza was, as the iconic shopping destination has been such an integral part of our landscape for half a century. And like the other well-traveled mall Fashion Island, this year South Coast Plaza celebrates its 50th golden anniversary, with a host of special events slated throughout the year.

…Which has made me stop and think: What do buildings mean to us? What’s in the hearts of architects and developers when they begin to spin ideas that will manifest in the physical constructions, against which our lives play out?

Personally I enjoy South Coast Plaza because strolling its corridors and eating in its restaurants remind me of the streets of cosmopolitan cities I have loved, from New York to Tokyo, San Miguel de Allende and Paris. I never fail to hear at least three or four different languages on a visit (sometimes I even get to practice my rusty French). Like all great public spaces, South Coast Plaza attracts people who might not normally sit next to each other or spend time with one another. People from completely different walks of life mingle, all brought together to enjoy, to relax, to perhaps share a smile. I think of it like a container for building community: Whether you’re shopping at the Sears or the newest Gucci boutique, we are all just people united by a shared human experience.

But back to Elizabeth’s story: When she finally did see this place her husband had been talking about, they walked from Town Center over the Unity Bridge into the shopping area. “We walked and walked and walked and we chatted, and I said, ‘There are a lot of stores here!’” she recalls. “He told me, ‘It’s going to take you a lifetime to discover it.’”

His vision was a beautiful vision, she believes. And I find that inspiring, the power of a vision to positively affect the lives of millions of people. Let’s all envision the beautiful and the
positive – and then work hard to manifest it.

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