As the economic nightmares of the Great Recession fade from the psyche, some vestiges of that previous go-go real estate era are snapping back to life.

The Irvine Co. is dusting off its plans for the Orchard Hills neighborhood, a north Irvine hillside enclave of new homes that will have a decidedly luxury edge.

Article Tab: image1-Lansner: Irvine Co.'s next big bet is luxury homes
$ell SmArt… with Art!

When the company shelved its grand plans in 2007 — as the real estate market collapse gained its downward spin — all that had been built of Orchard Hills off Irvine Boulevard near Culver was a shopping center, apartments and an elementary school.

It’s now more than three years into what proved to be a brilliantly timed construction gamble by Irvine Co. billionaire owner Don Bren — and just about the time everybody else is joining the party. The giant developer is restarting Orchard Hills with plans for a spring 2014 launch with 12 distinct communities — and a massive grand opening featuring 35 model homes.

This initial phase will include slightly more than 1,000 townhouses and single-family homes, from modestly midmarket to well-pointed upscaleThe company will start assembling an interest list as soon as Tuesday.

“We thought it was time,” said Tom Veal, the Irvine Co.’s homebuilding marketing vice president.

While the Irvine Co. is still finishing the details, the company does say that the first wave of homes at Orchard Hills will be split into two neighborhoods. Each will have roughly 500 homes. In front of the gate, so to speak, will be the more “affordable” homes. In those communities, to the east of Culver closer to Northwood High School, residences will run from the $600,000s to just above $1 million.

Behind the gate, on land primarily to the west of Culver, homes will have price tags into the $2 million ballpark. This will be the first significant mass sale of top-end housing by the Irvine Co. — if not in the entire county — in the real estate rebound.

This bet on the upper-crust buyer certainly says a lot about the current oomph in housing — especially from the builder who made the first huge, and correct, bet on the end of the real estate slump.

Veal describes today’s homebuying market as “phenomenal,” with more of the Irvine Co.’s current communities nearing sell out. The company says it’s sold 1,094 homes this year through Sept. 12 — up 19 percent in a year. The builder has sold 4,380 homes since restarting construction in early 2010, a sales rush that includes the recent final sales at the 597-home Laguna Altura community, cut into the foothills south of the 405 just off Laguna Canyon Road.

It’s not just the Irvine Co. enjoying a rush of buyers. Overall, builders in Orange County have sold 1,945 homes in the first eight months of 2013, according to DataQuick Information Systems. That’s up 78 percent vs. 2012 — and is the busiest sales pace since 2007.

Veal says that if current fast-selling conditions hold — and the Irvine Co. believes they will — the developer will likely have a shortage of homes to sell as Orchard Hills comes to market.

One of the appeals of Orchard Hills will be its topography. This is unlike the building that the Irvine Co. primarily has done in the flatlands of the north Irvine basin since 2010 in and around Sand Canyon. Homes in Orchard Hills will be nestled in the rising foothills.

The structures will sit in an avocado grove. The recession-delayed construction means the landscaping will be mature, 6-year-old growth, giving a lush feel to the new streets. Veal says the new-home architecture will be equal to the setting.

“It’s going to be something very different than we’ve done before,” Veal says.

It’s hard to say that Orange County homebuilding is totally back when sales are half the pace of the past quarter century — but tract-size construction of luxury homes in the foothills certainly feels like another signal of recovery.