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Planners Taking a Familiar Path : Development: Rancho Santa Margarita's Town Center, a 'concentrated version' of the community, will be completed in phases through the year 2000.

THE NEW PIONEERS. Finding the good life on Orange County's suburban frontier.

March 31, 1994|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA — Southern California was starting to look good from the coffee shop where Cezar Griu, a Romanian immigrant, was sitting.

Griu, 33, sipped from his plastic foam cup, then grinned and waved at a familiar face in the newly built Plaza Antonio retail center. In other places, Californians seem cold, nobody smiles much, he remarked, "but here, it feels more like home in Romania, where neighbors are all your friends."

A modest collection of Early California-style courtyards, shops and restaurants, Plaza Antonio is only the first glimpse of the community's future town center.

Santa Margarita Co. planners say Town Center--a roughly pie-shaped 250-acre plot--will be completed in phases through the year 2000.

Just call it Hometown, U.S.A.

The cornerstones of urban life will be represented--school, library, shopping, affordable housing, entertainment, parks--and all will be woven together by two main walking paths.

Its heart and soul will be Central Plaza, a small amphitheater and park complex near the middle of the main pedestrian promenade. Here is where the road will be blocked off for street fairs, art festivals and "all types of community events," said Donald E. Moe, company senior vice president. "It will be somewhat European-style, people walking around, sitting at outside tables. Many special events will take place."

Plaza Antonio is ready to anchor one end of Town Center's "Main Street," officially named El Paseo. Currently under construction is a Target discount department store that will anchor the other end of El Paseo.

Also finished in Town Center is a high-tech middle school and the first 50 housing units of 2,500 planned in the center. Work is underway on a 16,500-square-foot library and a health club.

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Creating a hometown atmosphere by revitalizing an existing town center or building one from the ground up is hard, urban planners say. Locating open space in crowded Southern California isn't easy, and neither is finding construction funds in an economically depressed state.

The ability to develop a unified concept such as Town Center is made possible because the entire 5,000-acre community is owned by the O'Neill/Moiso family and their development firm, the Santa Margarita Co.

Company planners had a blank canvas in front of them when they sat down to map out the community in 1983 with the help of county officials. The first plans were drawn up in a rather non-traditional manner.

Meeting with county planners in a South County park, "after about 10 beers, we threw some butcher paper on a picnic table and asked them what they wanted to see on the land," Moe said.

What developed was the working concept of Rancho Santa Margarita.

"The Town Center is a very concentrated version of what we are doing with the whole community," said Steven Kellenberg, a design consultant hired by the Santa Margarita Co. "We don't just want this to be a town, we want it to be a hometown. Town Center might be the most important part."

Balancing the growth of Town Center businesses with the number of residents that must exist to support commerce is one of the biggest challenges facing company officials.

With a current population of nearly 21,000, Rancho Santa Margarita is growing but remains somewhat isolated in its location beneath the Saddleback Mountains east of San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo.

"We have to make sure we're big enough to support our businesses economically, but small enough so that people still know each other," Moe said.

Pushing his infant daughter in a stroller near the plaza's bell tower, Jim Irons, 38, said he can't wait to see the project finished.

"This will be everything I've missed about my hometown since I moved to California," said Irons, who moved from a Philadelphia suburb to Orange County five years ago. "When this Town Center is done, everything will be here--schools, shopping, restaurants. I can see myself not getting in a car for a month."

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