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“Hey guys, want to grab some Cha For Tea? Maybe we could burnzo some Camels and look badass out front!”
This is the type of bullshit that freshmen say about UTC, and when you’re new to campus and living in the dorms, it sounds cool. It is called University Town Center, right? This must be what university-age students do. And to any passerby, that’s what it looks like UC Irvine students do: hang out in front of Yogurtland, Cha, etc. and do, well, nothing.

Loitering isn’t really the problem; it’s the other businesses and lack thereof that arouse suspicion: an overpriced dry cleaners and nail salon that take advantage of students who live close to campus but  are without means of transportation; a couple of food places that no one ever goes to; redundancies in two pizza places and two yogurt shops; finally, a multi-unit dance studio and a children’s bookstore that cater to that huge 18- to 22-year-old-couple-with-children demographic.

UTC is hit-and-miss, so forcibly inorganic that it only makes sense that it’s the brainchild of the Irvine Company. The stores seem to have been randomly selected by a late 1990s AIM Bot that is trying to approximate what college kids would like. More accurately, the balance was struck by some middle manager that tried to split the difference between UCI, University High School and families in Irvine, and ended up satisfying no one.

A non-strip mall, true university “town center” is the area surrounding the four- or five-block radius of a school. Seemingly naturally, people with a passion for the community stay in the town they went to college in (!) and open up establishments that cater to that demographic (!!). It’s not unusual to find things like bars (pronounced like “cars” but with a “B”) or establishments that advertise their support and affiliation with the university (flags, game nights, etc.). But that second thing requires campus spirit and a football team, so we won’t really hold that against UCI.

One would think that proprietors would be busting their asses to get across the street from a major university. And many of them are. But then why are there so many vacancies? Maybe business owners are off-put by non-cops that ride around in non-cop cars telling people not to park there. It’s almost as if the Irvine Company resents that the university population might cut through all of their stores to go to school. The nerve!

When one tries to think of clear-cut “wins” at UTC, the list is short. That list gets shorter when one excludes large chains, like Trader Joe’s, In-N-Out and Jack in the Box, which are always bustling, but not particularly unique. It gets even shorter when one excludes pure staples like the post office and U.S. Army Recruiting Center. And then, even when one looks at this short list, the remaining stores get A’s for effort but C’s for mass appeal. Students appreciate comics, Japanese culture and indie movies, but Alakazaam, Tokyo Lifestyle and the Edwards 6 aren’t for everyone.

Even the places that were seemingly cool college staples couldn’t hang in there. Urban Gorilla, an apparel store that stocked clothes catered to students from a variety of brands is now gone (admittedly, they were too expensive). The Noize Music, the record-store front for a cigarette shop, was a victim of music purchasing trends. And finally the Denny’s that used to occupy the Lee’s Sandwiches building was a victim to 24-hour service with no bars around.

What could really be done though? An ideal model of a college town would be that around UC Berkeley. Clothing stores like American Apparel, Adidas and Urban Outfitters take residence among record stores Amoeba and Rasputin, head shops Big Al’s and Annapuma, piercing stores Zebra and Galaxxi and many delicious independent restaurants. While you may not be a pothead or think that American Apparel can be worn non-ironically, you have to give credit to all of these stores for contributing to an atmosphere that encourages individuality and self-expression, and frankly stupid decisions. College is the time to learn from one’s mistakes while trying to forge some sense of identity – all perhaps at the cost of a nipple piercing, some unprotected sex and some hard drug experiences. To each their own.

Now the UTC problem becomes clearer. Irvine is the last place in California to encourage self-expression (Note: the town of Irvine, although UCI occasionally is a close second). One should note that the other population in Berkeley by the “town center” is homeless people. Irvine certainly can’t have that (maybe only at Jack in the Box at 2 a.m., until the police can get there and whisk them away).

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a happy medium. A stronger pro-UCI flavor, a clear target demographic (ahem, UCI students) and more unique stores, bars and restaurants, mixed with creature comforts like Wi-Fi and public art displays, could make UTC a place that might be worth commuting to as well.

Please send comments to newuopinion@newuniversity.org. Include your name, year and major.

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