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Without an overhaul, traffic planners estimated that the extreme traffic congestion on El Toro Road in Lake Forest, Calif., would generate an estimated 17 tons of air pollution. Photos: NUVIS Landscape Architecture and Planning

Lake Forest, Calif., had a big challenge. One of southern Orange County's oldest communities, the city was surrounded by shiny new retail centers that were stealing local shoppers and dollars. Further complicating the problem was El Toro Road; the primary roadway to the city's downtown was ranked among the county's most congested streets.

The only move that would prevent Lake Forest from losing more business to neighboring municipalities: A major public works endeavor that would take two years to complete and cost about $32 million.

A Bit of History

Decades before it officially became a city in 1991, Lake Forest was an unincorporated area also referred to as “El Toro.” Its history as a working-class burg dates to the post-World War II era, when servicemen stationed at the adjacent El Toro Marine Air Station (now decommissioned) and other nearby bases decided to stay for good.

Like the rest of Orange County, the Lake Forest area began to grow rapidly in the mid-60s as residential, commercial, and industrial development replaced acres of citrus trees and other crops.

El Toro Road and adjacent communities evolved as the county grew, but because the area was unincorporated during intense growth in the 1970s and 1980s, it didn't get the close attention that a city government would have provided. Busy dealing with other growing parts of the county, the County Board of Supervisors left the area virtually on its own, with little guidance and hardly any funds for much-needed infrastructure improvements.

In 1988, the county board finally declared El Toro Road and its immediate environs a “blighted” area. When Lake Forest polled its residents in the late 1990s to determine what they considered top city priorities, the response was loud and clear:

“Fix El Toro Road!”

Continuous resident input is important when implementing a successful revitalization program. Armed with the survey data, the city started public-outreach workshops in 1997 to better hone in on what residents wanted.

Out of these workshops emerged clear direction: 1) abate traffic problems on El Toro Road, 2) make the roadway safer for vehicles and pedestrians, 3) establish a vibrant retail and business environment along the thoroughfare, and 4) create a more exciting sense of place—a real “downtown” of which residents could be proud.

Even clearer was the fact that without aggressive revitalization efforts, Lake Forest would suffer. Traffic planners projected that by 2020, El Toro Road would carry 70,000 vehicles a day. The congestion would further discourage businesses and shoppers from patronizing the city.

Tackling the Problem

Lake Forest's population stands at more than 76,000. Blocked in by neighboring municipalities, the city is nearly built-out, with only scattered undeveloped parcels remaining. As a result, the city is significantly impacted by the growth that surrounds it, especially the rapid expansion of Irvine and Foothill Ranch to the north.

The task of turning its aged commercial area into a vital downtown started from the ground up. The outreach workshops created a strong foundation of community support and credibility that stayed with the project through all phases, including intense construction, with few complaints and no opposition.

After gathering input from stakeholders, city staff, and consultants, Lake Forest generated a master plan for revamping the roadway and the surrounding 856-acre redevelopment area. Called the Revitalization and Revisioning Strategy, it was prepared by urban and real estate economists Sedway Group of Los Angeles, and Urban Design Studios, an urban planning and design firm in Irvine, Calif.