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They Dare to Dream of a Downtown

Planning: Officials seek ways to retrofit bedroom community suburbs with what older cities have--an urban core.

April 01, 2002|EVAN HALPER and DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange officials have grown accustomed to calls from planners and politicians curious about their famed Old Towne, and whether it is possible to re-create the quaint urban center, with its antique shops, soda fountain and Craftsman homes, in their own backyards.

But a few months back, a query baffled them.

It came from a consultant for Lake Forest, a south Orange County city that has long prided itself on being a bedroom community where homebuyers can flee urban hassles, stake their claim to a small lot, maybe behind heavy iron gates. Pedestrian-friendly village centers? Not part of the equation.

The downtown renaissance of the last decade that transformed cities like Orange, Brea and Huntington Beach passed right over the suburbs of south county, where much of public life exists in malls and strip malls. Now, many of those cities want to catch up.

The few cities that have downtowns are looking to spruce up neglected main streets, while others--true to south county style--are building manicured downtowns from scratch as part of master-planned communities.

Lake Forest is looking to inject a dose of Old Towne Orange into its revamping of heavily traveled El Toro Road--a reach, perhaps, since it's a busy highway largely used to get to the freeway.

"Sure, with 60,000 cars going by, people will never want to walk right alongside El Toro Road," said Kathy Graham, the city's community development director. But she sees opportunities to create pedestrian promenades that connect the large retail properties on either side of it. "Some of the concepts that worked well in Old Towne Orange could be incorporated," she said.

Planners say the downtown movement is overdue in south Orange County.

"People are having urban experiences in other places and they like it," said William Fulton, an urban planner and author of books about growth in Southern California. "They return to parts of Orange County where [downtowns] don't exist and are asking 'Why can't we have that here?'"

In some places, they can.

Plans for the 3,500-acre Talega community in San Clemente include a village center full of coffee shops, restaurants and stores that will be within walking distance of many of the 4,000 residences that will ultimately be built, including 300 townhomes nestled among the stores. Even a farmers' market, long a staple of urban life, is on the drawing board. Also within the community will be a business park rivaling the Irvine Spectrum in size.

But instead of marketing the development as a secluded retreat where homeowners can barricade themselves against the outside world, Talega Associates is selling the community as a place where the outside world comes to you, where you don't have to drive to do everything. It's what some planners call "soft" urbanism.

The Rancho Mission Viejo company introduced that type of development to the area with Rancho Santa Margarita. Now, concentrated areas of restaurants, shops and offices are being built in the company's 4,000-acre Ladera Ranch community, and the concept will be a staple in the company's development plans for the 23,000 open acres it has left.

And, of course, when they look for models to re-create, they look toward Old Towne Orange.

"Old Towne, with its traffic circle and coffee shops, it's coming back," said Rancho Mission Viejo spokeswoman Diane Gaynor. "The focus is on re-creating the kind of downtowns we knew growing up."

Victor Georgino, a developer who has worked on downtown revitalization projects, says mimicking older cities puts a stamp of authenticity on communities, and that comforts residents.

"The old look tends to create a synergism with the community and gives them the feeling of Mayberry, U.S.A.," he said. "It gives everyone a sense of place and community."

Purists scoff at the notion, writing off the downtowns created in master-planned communities as merely shopping malls without roofs.

Gaynor spins it another way: "We can combine the best parts of the old with the best parts of the new. We have a clean palette."

The divide between north and south Orange County, when it comes to providing an urban experience, was evident at a recent conference of the state Downtown Assn., held in Brea.

Representatives from north county were there to learn about retrofitting blighted urban centers. Experts talked about putting lofts in warehouses, spaces where people could work and live, lining main streets with flags, and declaring half-vacant commercial districts redevelopment zones.

Nobody from south county showed up, since opportunities to retrofit are limited. Places that already have downtowns, such as San Juan Capistrano and coastal San Clemente, are thriving by benefiting from what was already there and not disrupting it.

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