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

The strategy started with design and construction of El Toro Road from the I-5 Freeway to Muirlands Boulevard. Irvine-based Psomas Engineering managed the actual roadway design and construction, and NUVIS Landscape Architecture and Planning of Costa Mesa, Calif., orchestrated landscaping, hardscape, and architectural elements.

“The goal was to embrace the city's agricultural heritage while establishing a strong new sense of place,” says Perry Cardoza, NUVIS corporate principal and El Toro Road project manager. The city and its consultants also worked closely with California DOT (CalTrans) and the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Crafting a Solution

The majority of funding was secured from the Orange County Transportation Authority's Measure M funds ($15.4 million), and the County of Orange Foothill Circulation Phasing Plan ($3.4 million). Measure M is a $4.2 billion voter-approved sales tax increase, being used to improve the county's roadways and public transit. The remainder of the funds ($13.7 million) came from Lake Forest. Of the $32.15 million project cost, about $17.8 million was used to acquire the necessary rights of way; $11.1 million went to construction; and $3.26 million covered engineering and other professional services.

A key component of the redevelopment process—the largest of its kind in the city's history—was a marketing program, formulated from stakeholder input gained through workshops. It addressed commercial analyses; shopper perceptions; and planned architecture, signage, landscaping, and pedestrian amenities. In keeping with the area's bucolic theme, the city adopted the name “The Arbors” for the project. Through newsletters, media coverage, a Web site (, and other communications, the city kept stakeholders abreast of progress and problems, and engaged them in the process from start to finish.

The city's agricultural legacy was articulated with 60,000 square feet of new landscaping, including 261 trees and 3060 shrubs. Craftsman-influenced landscaped median islands; planted parkways providing a buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway; and pedestrian walkways and seating areas added to the aesthetic. Rounding out the beautiful new downtown is a gateway entry at Rockfield Boulevard consisting of 25-foot stone and metal towers on both sides of El Toro Road.

Successful Reinvention

With El Toro Road now complete, The Arbors has become a turning point for Lake Forest.

“The project presented challenges large and small to city residents and businesses,” says Robert Woodings, the city's director of public works and chief engineer. “Nevertheless, based on our surveys, 98% of residents supported the project at the onset and that level of support has never wavered.”

After the project's September 2006 completion, the reinvigorated area quickly began attracting major new investments. Westrust/Apollo, one of California's leading retail developers, is constructing an $80 million, 279,000-square-foot center called The Orchard at Saddleback. The first phase was completed fall 2005, and several major retail tenants—such as Pier 1 Imports, Staples, and PetSmart—have already opened their doors. Another emerging retail center is being developed by GDM LLC directly across El Toro Road, with Home Depot as the anchor.

With community outreach, careful planning and execution, and creative expression, the city's retail revitalization strategy is being realized. These new retail centers and related businesses are expected to be key energizers for other outlets along El Toro Road, creating an urban mix of offices, stores, restaurants, civic, and entertainment uses that will open a new chapter in the growth and vitality of Lake Forest.

— Rombouts is a business writer based in Irvine, Calif.

Project Details: El Toro Road Traffic and Landscape Improvement Project
  • Date started: September 2004
  • Date completed: September 2006
  • Project cost: $32 million
  • Location: Lake Forest, Calif.
  • Lead agency: City of Lake Forest Redevelopment
  • Affiliated agencies: California DOT, County of Orange, and Orange County Transportation Authority
  • Vendors: Psomas (civil engineering and project management), NUVIS (landscape architecture and planning)