The Irvine Co. has shown strong interest in the roughly 5.5 million-square-foot office portfolio of CommonWealth Partners LLC, according to sources familiar with the sale process.

Some sources said billionaire Donald L. Bren's Irvine Co., one of the largest private landowners in the state, has submitted an informal bid of about $1.6 billion for the properties, which include several prominent L.A. County office buildings. Another source said the figure for the non-binding expression of interest was closer to $1.5 billion.

Irvine Co. is expected to file a formal bid on Tuesday, the deadline for companies interested in buying the portfolio to place their chits with the broker, Secured Capital Corp. Calls to Secured Capital weren't returned.

Sources said Irvine Co. valued the portfolio higher than any of the other serious contenders for the portfolio, including J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc. and a partnership led by Equity Office Properties Trust. Houston-based Hines, Trizec Properties Inc. and possibly Maguire Properties Inc. are expected to submit bids, too, sources said.

Bidders not expected to stick around for Round 2 are Arden Realty Inc., California State Teachers Retirement System and a partnership of Beacon Capital Partners Inc. and CarrAmerica Realty Corp.

Last month, Los Angeles-based CommonWealth listed its entire portfolio of 13 properties, including the 53-story tower at 777 S. Figueroa St. in downtown L.A. and three high-profile Glendale office buildings.

CommonWealth owns its properties through a partnership with Rockefeller Group International Inc. and the California Public Employees Retirement System, which voted at the end of last year to cut back its overall real estate holdings. Calpers spurred the portfolio sale, sources said.

While an aggressive real estate developer and buyer, Irvine Co. has traditionally focused on dominating its core Orange County habitat. It has diversified in recent years, and now has about 20 percent of the firm's holdings are now outside Orange County. Irvine Co. owns Fox Plaza in Century City, 1221 Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica and the Symphony Towers in San Diego, along with offices and apartments in the Silicon Valley.

The CommonWealth portfolio has only one property in Orange County, the 786,000-square-foot Pacific Arts Plaza in Costa Mesa. It also has properties in Phoenix, Denver and Honolulu, which would represent a further geographic diversification for Irvine Co.

Irvine Co., JP Morgan and EOP all have easy access to cash and debt, making them the favorites to win the bidding contest, sources said.

Irvine Co.'s core holdings derive from developing the 120,000-acre Irvine Ranch, formed in the mid-1800s when James Irvine bought out its Mexican land-grant holders. Bren, the company's owner and chairman, is worth $4.3 billion and is the 38th wealthiest American, according to a 2004 ranking by Forbes magazine.

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