Firm Unveils O.C. Downtown of the Future


Ringed by the mountains and hills of South Orange County, what is now an empty field could become the largest downtown between Tustin and San Onofre, with office buildings 10 stories tall clustered around the interchanges of an eight-lane highway.

Santa Margarita Co. said Monday that it plans to build an old-fashioned downtown--with parks and a main street designed for pedestrians--in the middle of the emerging, ultramodern planned community of Rancho Santa Margarita.

Every one of the town's 5,000 acres has been planned, right down to where the schools, churches and fire stations will go. Until now, however, the downtown had been a blank canvas of 250 rolling, empty acres.

The big landowner and developer Monday unveiled its masterpiece: a plan for 2 million square feet of office buildings mixed with 600,000 square feet of shopping complexes and retail space, 4,000 condominiums and apartments, a civic center, day-care centers, restaurants, movie theaters and a hotel.

"It's almost a town within a town," said Donald E. Moe, a Santa Margarita Co. senior vice president for marketing. "It'll be the new urban center for South County."

The first step begins with an $18-million, 160,000-square-foot shopping center scheduled to open late next year. A joint venture with giant Newport Beach developer The Koll Co., the center will open onto the main street that will be the focal point of the new downtown.

The street--as yet unnamed--will run by a hotel and be lined with two-story buildings--retail shops on the first floor and condominiums and apartments on the second. Three urban parks will be developed a few blocks away on either side of the street. At the other end of the street will be another retail center.

Further south, offices will rise in a line next to the highway. The condominiums and apartments won't exceed three stories but will be built about 25 units to the acre, making it some of the densest housing in Orange County.

Planning on such a vast scale "is scary," conceded Thomas C. Blum, executive vice president of Santa Margarita Co.

Initially, for instance, there will be no high-rise condominium towers even in the densest section of the new downtown. Customers aren't willing to pay the kind of prices developers must charge to build high-rises, said Moe, the marketing executive. But eventually, high-rises, too, will appear as Rancho Santa Margarita grows up to be a small city, Moe said.

Rancho Santa Margarita, which is unincorporated and thus under the jurisdiction of county government, began selling homes in 1986 and now has a population of 15,000. When completed after the turn of the century, it is expected to be home to 40,000 residents.

With the downtown design, the company's executives and planners are seeking to avoid the mistakes of two of Orange County's other new towns, Mission Viejo and Irvine, both planned in the 1960s.

Mission Viejo was owned by the O'Neill family, which controls the Santa Margarita Co., before the family sold its interest to cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris Cos. Mission Viejo was planned as a dormitory suburb with few offices or industries to mar its residential neighborhoods. The problem was that residents had to commute elsewhere to jobs, adding to the crush of traffic on the freeways.

Irvine incorporated business areas into its plans but none of them can be said to be a "downtown" in the traditional sense, since nearly every big office building stands self-contained on its own grassy tract. The city is now, in fact, trying to redevelop a more traditional downtown.

Rancho Santa Margarita, on the other hand, will be planned to be "pedestrian friendly," a place where visitors can park and walk to most of the attractions, such as the civic center, five movie theaters, restaurants, shops and the hotel. It is also planned to be a "16-hour or even 24-hour area," said Blum, which will stay lively with theaters and restaurants even after nearby offices empty out at the end of the day.

The residential and retail buildings will be designed in the ubiquitous Spanish Mission style that already dominates the 5,200 homes and apartments in Rancho Santa Margarita. The company's executives said they visited many cities in planning the downtown and were most influenced by Santa Barbara, where Spanish-style buildings also predominate.

Balancing housing with jobs nearby is becoming increasingly important as a means to control pollution from the hundreds of thousands of cars that jam Southern California's freeways each work day. In fact, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has broad powers to reduce air pollution, has made the jobs-housing balance one of its main goals.

But it was county planners 10 years ago who insisted on the dense, traditional urban center that the company unveiled Monday, Blum said.

The company acceded in return for the county shifting the Foothill Transportation Corridor closer to the center of the huge tract, Blum said. The corridor, which initially will be six lanes wide, will connect to the San Diego Freeway south of San Clemente and to another new highway, the Eastern Transportation Corridor, north of Rancho Santa Margarita.

The county has approved plans for the downtown in broad outline, and company executives say they anticipate few objections from county government in building the area.

The town itself is a Y-shaped parcel with residential neighborhoods in both arms of the Y. The new downtown is where the two arms meet, and below that is a 450-acre industrial center. Down the base of the Y on either side runs open space, land the company has left vacant that takes up about half the town's 5,000 acres.

Until now, the company has been somewhat sensitive about announcing its development plans for the downtown, since at one point in 1988 slow-growth forces put a measure on the county ballot that might have tied up Rancho Santa Margarita and other South County developments in the courts. But that initiative was defeated and the slow-growth movement has been relatively quiet. The company says it has continued to develop plans for the downtown and felt the time was right to announce them.

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