Letter published as an Opinion/Editorial in the Capistrano Valley News, April 28, 2005.

RANCHO MISSION VIEJO: PROTOTYPE FOR THE NEW SUBURBANISM

Orange County residents understand our once suburban American dream has long since turned urban. Instead of becoming like downtown LA or Manhattan, the future of development for OC should be more human-scaled, more livable – let us call it the New Suburbanism.

New residents and their cars and babies are coming our way – why can’t their arrival be a call to enhance our cities, our environment? The old suburbia sprawls all over the County, and we have the opportunity to fit the newcomers into our hometowns while creating walkable villages, where strip malls can become European-style townhomes with shops and restaurants in the bottom floor. This is known in the real estate development community as Smart Growth, and for the lifestyle-conscious OC, the New Suburbanism.

As noted in a recent study by the Urban Land Institute, over the last half-century numerous governmental policies in conjunction with private corporations have led to and supported sprawl. Federal spending on highways, Federal Housing Administration financing policies, and large-lot exclusionary zoning has forced the artificial separation of uses, leading to long commutes between our homes, shopping malls and office parks. Companies like General Motors and Shell have profited enormously at the expense of mass transit, and our built environment has become too big for people. Vibrant neighborhoods where one can walk to get a coffee, bike to the soccer field and take the train to the office have been made illegal by planning departments. Private developers maximized their profits for decades at the expense of community benefits like parks, bikeways, and open space. Get in your car, folks, and try and get to work on time.

Today’s city planners must become centrists, triangulating between aggressive land developers and anti-growth environmentalists. Traffic gridlock and disappearing open spaces demand a new approach to suburbia. History professor Joel Kotkin has been quoted recently in online journal "The Planning Report," saying: "The real solution is to create more self-contained urban villages developing the arts and culture in various neighborhoods so that people do not have to make trips to one or two other places." Brea, Irvine, Lake Forest, and Costa Mesa understand this need at great cost to redevelopment agencies, private landowners and community stakeholders. The original developers made mistakes – now taxpayers must shoulder the burden to widen the roads, and upgrade the infrastructure. Yet, it is too late to develop a true center of town, too late to save land for parks and open space – the opportunity is lost.

What about the last wild spaces left? The Smart Growth movement offers the development community a positive compromise between accommodating a growing and changing population and preserving wilderness and parkland. The great opportunity we have now is Rancho Mission Viejo (RMV) in South County, the final piece of 120 years of ranching history now slated for development. Here the Ranch can build prototype New Suburban villages that provide diverse housing types constructed around centers of concentrated mixed uses – a real hometown neighborhood. The key to this value, this sense of place, is to preserve green infrastructure and protect the last pristine watershed in Southern California, the San Mateo Creek that flows into the Pacific at Trestles.

Unfortunately, the approved plan, now under litigation by the Sierra Club and NRDC, sprawls all over the 23,000 acre site, cutting off important wildlife corridors, dumping sediment and pathogens into pristine streams, bulldozing sensitive coastal sage/scrub habitat, home to eight endangered species. As well, the plan designates Ortega Highway as its main east-west thoroughfare – a massive impact to our sleepy San Juan Capistrano. The Foothill Toll Road (SR 241), proposed to bisect the entire ranch, would not mitigate the traffic nightmare, as the majority of commuters will be headed for their jobs and shopping malls via Interstate 5 and not north to Riverside. We suggest a rethinking.

A coalition of environmental groups has put forward an environmentally superior alternative: The Wild Heritage Plan for RMV. The plan calls for four suburban villages, leaving the balance of the site for private ranch, public recreation or land conservancy. Think boomers or active seniors living in a community that encourages birdwatching and picnicking along the creeks, bicycling through remote canyons, and walking to a restaurant on a Saturday night. Think the hilltowns of Umbria, Italy, with their lovely palazzos and street cafés just a short hike to steep wild mountains.

By building a mix of housing with commercial areas, traffic trips would be reduced. To deal with the project-specific traffic, however, we suggest the County consider extending the SR 241 Toll Road from its present terminus at Oso Parkway south to the proposed villages, providing a northbound access. Westbound access could be achieved to Interstate 5 and the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road (SR 73) via Avery Parkway on a dedicated, limited access arterial. That way the wasteful toll road extension across the pristine San Mateo watershed could be avoided, and Ortega Highway would be spared the bulk of the westbound Ranch traffic.

To find out more about Smart Growth for Orange County and the Wild Heritage Plan for RMV, please attend a talk given by noted Urban Planner and author Bill Fulton and the Wild Heritage Planners. It is on Wednesday, April 27th at 7 PM in the Doheny Beach Doubletree Guest Suites, 34402 Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point.

Jack Eidt is co-founder and Director of Planning for Wild Heritage Planners.