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California City Solutions: Lake Forest’s Comprehensive Study Brings Housing, Sports Park and Civic Center to the Community

June 24, 2016
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
 
The 2015 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. The city of Lake Forest’s Opportunities Study was submitted in 2015 for the Planning and Environmental Quality award category.

Located in Orange County’s scenic Saddleback Valley and surrounded by rolling foothills, the city of Lake Forest is known as a safe and family-friendly community. After incorporating in 1991, the city underwent a comprehensive planning process to rezone five large properties of land to allow for residential uses and community recreation facilities, transforming it into the community that residents enjoy today.
 
The Opportunities Study Area (OSA) is a comprehensive planning process that Lake Forest undertook to rezone over 800 acres of land formerly zoned for business and industrial use. The zoning changes allow for a new plan with residential uses and facilities including a sports park, community center and civic center. The OSA has enabled various public private partnerships with land owners that have resulted in over $200 million in public benefit to the city.
 
The city’s challenge began with the proposed El Toro International Airport. A couple of decades ago, hundreds of aircraft from the neighboring El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the largest Marine air station on the west coast, flew directly over Lake Forest. In the shadow of the flight path and exposed to safety hazards and noise, more than 800 acres of city land were limited to industrial development.
 
In 1993, the federal government announced the closure of the base, and Orange County immediately began planning for an international airport on the property, igniting a political firestorm. Local cities banded together and launched a grassroots effort to stop the airport. After nearly a decade, voters in 2002 defeated the airport proposal. It was at that time that landowners approached the city to discuss new development ideas, including building housing. No longer confined by a flight path, the city now had an opportunity to develop the area and incorporate it into the balance of the community. After the initial defeat of the airport, the city’s challenge became balancing the desires of the private development community with the needs of the community’s residents.
 
In 2003, the Lake Forest City Council ordered a comprehensive study, known as The Opportunities Study, to consider potential community impacts as well as benefits of changing land use designations for the area. This project would become the most extensive and fruitful public-private partnership in the city’s history.
 
The city council and staff wanted to gather feedback from residents and landowners on their shared vision for the area. After years of comprehensive study and public engagement, the community identified a new sports park, community center and civic center as the top public projects.
 
The city estimated at the time that the cost to design and build these projects would likely exceed $100 million. Given the cost of acquiring land, designing, and ultimately constructing such large projects, the city realized the importance of developing a strong public-private relationship to enhance both the community and opportunities for the landowners.
 
The city and its development partners began working diligently toward a goal that would enable development of the land into master planned residential neighborhoods and provide funding to build the community’s vision for the future of Lake Forest. The following objectives and guiding principles were identified:
  1. Ensure that new development would not have a greater impact to existing infrastructure;
  2. Reduce traffic impacts to previously approved land uses;
  3. Maintain fiscal balance;
  4. Deliver quality master planned communities;
  5. Expand trails and open space linkages;
  6. Provide a diverse mix of housing; and
  7. Mitigate impact to schools; and
  8. Deliver a sports park and community center to serve the current and future residents of Lake Forest. 
Through the use of sophisticated financial modeling, development projections, and close collaboration, the city and the OSA landowners developed a clear and consistent vision for the future of the community. The process resulted in the creation of multiple development agreements in which the landowners provided revenue to the city in exchange for new land use entitlements. More than 26 community workshops, meetings, and public hearings were held to engage the public in the OSA planning process and keep people informed of its progress.
 
These agreements provide direct public benefit dollars to the city based on both the total number and size of units being developed. Each landowner is paying a share of the cost to build neighborhood parks, provide affordable housing, fund the development of new major roads, improve existing infrastructure, improve schools, and fund the design and development of the new community facilities desired by the residents of Lake Forest. The agreements and cooperative partnership that enabled them are the fundamental basis for the success of this program.
 
The city secured funding for the construction of the Lake Forest Sports Park and Recreation Center as well as a Civic Center through contributions of landowners. Additionally, funding was received for important roadway improvements such as the extension of Alton Parkway and Rancho Parkway as major arterial roadways that are currently improving traffic circulation throughout Lake Forest and the surrounding region.
 
In November 2014, the city opened the Lake Forest Sports Park and Recreation Center. The 86-acre facility contains four baseball fields, one softball field, three multi-use fields, two synthetic fields, a large area known as The Commons for special events, a 27,000 square foot community center, various picnic shelters and gazebos, and trail connections to the nearby Aliso Creek Trail. The Sports Park is one of the premier recreation facilities in Orange County and was made possible by the public-private partnership approach developed through the OSA process.
 
The OSA is the most successful public-private partnership in the history of Lake Forest. The outcome created through this process struck a balance between private property rights and public benefit by enabling residential and commercial development while providing dollars to finance public improvements.
 
The project will result in over 4,000 new homes, various neighborhood parks, millions of dollars for capital projects to build new roads or enhance existing intersections; the Lake Forest Sports Park and Recreation Center; and the Lake Forest Civic Center to be comprised of a community center, senior center, police center, community theatre, and administrative offices. These projects are provided without the need to assess special taxes on the residents of the community. The model developed by Lake Forest became the foundation upon which partnerships with landowners were built.


 
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