Although it is difficult to believe after traveling around the gated communities of Southern California, not all large greenfield developments here greedily eat up open space and destroy their native landscapes. Probably the most generous new example is Rancho Mission Viejo, a mixed-use residential project in the hilly unincorporated area of South Orange County, near San Clemente and Camp Pendleton, which is being master planned in part by SWA.
One of the last new towns to be built on Southern California ranch land (and the last working ranch in Orange County), Rancho Mission Viejo encompasses 23,000 acres, but development is sited on just over 6,000 acres, with the remaining 17,000 acres set aside as a preserve. SWA’s current parcel, phase 2 (there will be 8 phases in total) takes up 865 acres.
The ranch’s owners, the O’Neill/Avery/Moiso family, decided early on to establish the preserve, called the Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo, as a way of “keeping their way of life and a legacy to leave behind,” said SWA managing principal Sean O’Malley. The specific boundaries were set as a response to ecological studies, reserving sensitive land—most of it at lower elevations—for open spaces made of canyons, creeks, cattle pastures, oak groves, and citrus orchards.
Where development does occur—there will be 15,000 homes total, with 3,000 in phase 2—it is sited to minimize impact and to emphasize walkability and outdoor activity. Located in the less ecologically sensitive highlands, housing tracts are shaped largely by the natural coastal hills and other landforms. Instead of leveling this area with homebuilders’ usual repertoire of cut and cover, SWA has elected for light to medium grading.
SWA managing principal Sean O’Malley likens this process, in which flat zones for development lie on top of recreated graded areas to “abstracting the hill.” “You’re sculpting it as a series of terraces as close as possible to the form of the hill,” he said. “We’re always trying to find the balance to preserve the character of the hill and minimize the grading as much as possible.” Informal, curving streets, trails, and local vegetation will be inserted within this topography, while selected areas—such as a natural canyon known as Oak Canyon Park—will be preserved in their original form.
On the ridgeline at the top of the development the firm has placed the town main street, community center, local retail, parks, and interior trails. With this strategy, “everyone can share in the most spectacular view,” adding value to the development at large, said O’Malley.
This strategy is becoming more common as developers begin to capitalize on the desire for a greater sense of community. SWA architect Andrew Watkins gives the owner families and their consultants credit for being “willing to explore lots of different options.”
Starting from this focal point, the firm has clustered more density near the top of the hills, increasing walkability to these amenities (another option may be shared electric vehicles) and increasing home worth. Houses range from clusters of four-to-10 bungalows, to detached duplexes, to single family units. Age qualified housing will be actively incorporated into this mix, not separated. The lowlands along the edge of the development will incorporate multi-family apartments, including some affordable housing, as well as parks, and schools. Robert Hidey Architects is putting together a mix of traditional ranch and modern homes, staying away from the Spanish Colonial style that dominates Orange County.
Phase two grading has begun and work should be completed in two to three years, said O’Malley. SWA will next embark on phases three and four (which could include denser retail and commercial development) as the market dictates. The entire project could be completed in 10 to 20 years, said O’Malley.
Green corridors—made up of both un-programmed green space and programmed parks and paseos, run between the development areas, creating an interconnected network. Along the edges of the development the firm has created a web of paths and trails, borrowing views from the open space preserve beyond while not infringing on it. The views to these open spaces, not to mention the lookouts from houses on the terraces of this emerging hill town, all add value to the development, said O’Malley. Much more so than the traditional zigzag of destruction that traditional development promotes.
“There’s an underlying value to working with the land,” said O’Malley. “Working with the land is the key.”