Planning Firm Shifts to City Clients : Fewer Giand Developments, More 'Urban Opportunities'

Times Staff Writer

When it was formed 10 years ago, The Planning Center in Newport Beach concentrated on creating gigantic residential planned communities in suburbia for major developers.

Although it is still involved in the planning process of such developments--including the emerging Chino Hills community in southwestern San Bernardino County--today 40% of the work of the planning firm is for local governments, according to principal Richard Ramella.

"We're in a cycle of recycling, despite the publicity about massive residential communities in Orange County, the Inland Empire and Ventura County," he added during an interview in a construction trailer in Chino Hills.

Earlier, Ramella, his fellow principal, Peter R. Templeton, and Bill Griffith, California operations director of California Melcor Inc., the Orange County-based unit of a Canadian building firm, walked the dirt of The Village Oaks.

Planning Since 1970

The tires of grading equipment standing idle during the lunch break dwarfed the three as they discussed where the houses would be built.

Melcor's development is in The Oaks, one of eight "villages" in the Chino Hills specific plan area. With 18,000 acres--about the size of the city of San Francisco--Chino Hills is the largest specific plan in the state, Templeton said. His firm has been involved in its planning since the late 1970s.

Developments like Chino Hills, Rancho Santa Margarita east of Mission Viejo in southern Orange County, the Wood Ranch in Simi Valley and the 4,000-acre Moreno Valley Ranch development in Moreno Valley, south of Riverside, are the exceptions because "we're running out of land in Southern California," he explained.

"Developers now have only two real options," he added. "They can redevelop existing communities with different uses and/or higher density or they can move into the outlying fringe areas or even other states."

Enhancement, Rehabilitation

The Planning Center has added a branch office in Phoenix, one of the major residential building cities in the nation.

The boom period in Texas, especially Houston and Dallas, appears to be over for the foreseeable future, to be replaced by cities like Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, San Diego, Los Angeles and metropolitan Orange County, according to another principal in the firm, RandalW. Jackson, who said the emphasis in inner-city projects is now on enhancement and rehabilitation rather than redevelopment.

"We've begun looking for opportunities to create better patterns of quality and growth," he added. "This is what is known as 'urban opportunity development,' and it is a different approach to urban redevelopment."

Southern California's speeded-up obsolescence cycle--where a 20-year-old office building can be demolished to make way for a newer, taller one--contributes to its international reputation as a region that is 10 to 15 years ahead of the rest of the nation in planning innovations, Templeton added.

Municipal Clients

Ramella said that municipalities began to emerge as major new clients in the years following the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Cities--especially smaller ones--discovered that they couldn't afford a full-time planning staff, yet they realized that good planning was more important than before passage of the measure.

Too, the nature of planning has changed: "In the past, planning was a technical matter," he explained. "Now it's more a human, social process, with today's home buyers much more sophisticated in terms of planned communities than their parents were."

Planning firms that hope to survive and thrive must adapt to the new realities, including a plethora of governmental regulations, anti-growth sentiment and the lack of easy-to-develop land, he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World