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A 17 Million Year History of Community: Laguna Hills Community Center

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Laguna Hills, Calif. is a significant site for fossils of land mammals that lived about 40,000 years ago. Remains of the giant ground sloth, Colombian mammoth, saber tooth cat, camel, longhorn bison and wolves were found in the area.
Photos courtesy of Leslie McGuire

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The multiple layers of geology, archaeology, paleontology and all the stories they engender is no more beautifully brought to life than in this community center and sports park designed by Davis Volz.

Located on a Miocene era inland sea, the site was home to prehistoric fish, shellfish, birds, animals and people, all with a very strong sense of community.

The entryway to the Laguna Hills Community Center mirrors the pre-historic topography with a treated water “river” feeding the waterfalls. It then becomes untreated water capable of supporting the plant materials in the water garden pool, which represents prehistoric marshes. Done in the style of ancient cave paintings the back wall has etched on it the animals found on the site.

Laguna Hills is a new city with a grand vision of what a community should be. Parks are an important element in the quality of life the city’s residents demand, and the community center park is to be the focus of cultural and recreational activities for all of Laguna Hills. Originally envisioned as a sports park, the master plan evolved through over 20 public and council reviews into more of a grand central park with wide walkways, verdant groves of ginkgo trees, and large picnic areas. “We started out with a request for a bunch of ball fields,” says Volz. “After a year of research we put together design ideas that would separate the park from the street while preserving hundreds of the trees originally on the site and create a truly educational and creative experience. And yes, there are sports fields and other activity areas as well as all the unique features not found anywhere else in the Saddleback Valley.”

Still mirroring the curved river bank, the gingko trees that follow it in the entryway jump across the street to connect to the sports area. Cool season grasses are planted in the passive space to the right for watching the games as well as providing a formal walkway up to the bandstand, playgrounds and the covered picnic area. The grade is 5 percent to meet accessibility standards and avoid the necessity of ramps.

Mixing the Past and the Present

David Volz Design was instrumental in bringing the park from a typical sports complex to what is a much more interesting place — a center for diverse recreational activity. One of the exciting amenities of the park includes the themed play area. Here, the children can use their imagination and pretend they are participating in an exciting archeological dig. A replica of a fossilized whale skeleton provides climbing fun while the park’s skate park and hockey rink add much appreciated activities for somewhat older children. The construction contract for the parks landscape and park facilities was $4.5 million.

A sand filled cave of manufactured rock provides additional castings of fossils embedded in the walls as well as actual fossils found at the site. Shade structures protect parents and children from the sun, and a set of stairs leads up to the conventional playground area. But there is also a secret entrance, which utilizes the challenging elevation changes.
Photos courtesy of David Volz Design

The Planning Process

Paramount to realizing the city of Laguna Hills’ dream of a sports park was the ability to convert an existing drainage basin into a space flat enough to fulfill grading requirements for the various features of the park and meet ADA guidelines. “We started with a large, flat piece of dirt,” says Volz. “But we made the topography, which gave us an opportunity to put it where we wanted it to be.”

In addition, the area is a premier archaeological and paleontology site. “We hired a paleontologist who worked at the site for three years helping us preserve what we found.” But for the most part, they didn’t dig down and disturb a lot of the bones and artifacts. They used a great deal of fill instead and built up. For six months trucks of dirt arrived all day every day.

Signage describing the changing geology of the area was designed to be educational and truly creative. The information was provided by the on-site paleontologist.
Photo courtesy of Leslie McGuire

In all, over 500,000 cubic yards of soil were moved in order to create the park. The existing wetlands were successfully relocated under the city’s commitment to improve and protect its natural resources. Non-native species were removed and protective fencing added to develop and restore a wetlands habitat downstream of the park site. The addition of a signalized intersection provides ingress and egress to the park and connects the park to the local high school. “The elevation changes gave us lots of challenges, but also gave us lots of opportunity,” says Volz. “But the final result is much more interesting and engaging than what we started out with.”

There is a transition between the two bowls, starting with the easier one and flowing into the more difficult. Volz introduced the concept of two-toned colored concrete. Behind the skatepark is a roller hockey rink, which meets the proposed CIF standard and has a blue base to replicate ice.

Land Use Issues

The city and the school district also worked together on land use issues and were able to enter into a joint use agreement for the sports fields and parking. Phase I of the construction included all of the grading and infrastructure improvements, the development of sports fields and facilities, park areas and parking lots. Phase II involved the construction of the Community Center Building complex and public plaza. Overall, the city invested $22.5 million dollars in the Community Center Project. The design team, city representatives and contractor met on a weekly basis over the three-year construction period.

Volz designed the skatepark with the help of a design charette attended by 40 young people. The volcano in the center was their idea. Both the roller hockey rink and the skateboard park are lit at night with shielded lights to avoid upsetting the neighbors and seems to be working well.
Photos courtesy of David Volz Design

The facilities include a 40,000 square foot community center, including a Little League Field, 2 soccer fields, an adult softball field, a group picnic area, snack and concession stand, restrooms, an outdoor stage and gazebo, roller hockey, a 12,000 square foot skate park and a paleo-adventure play ground with mixed stamped and real fossils embedded in man made rock.

The drop off and pick up area has zero curb design with native plantings. A cork oak with a bedding of roses makes it very nice for events since the center hosts many social and cultural projects. The paving is natural stone which mirrors that found through the plaza area as well as inside the building.

A Rich and Very Long History

Small fish and other creatures thrived in the underwater area of Laguna Hills’ Pecten Reef about 15 million years ago. Fossils from the deep sea era, about 8 million years ago, included whales, sea lions, and lantern fish and were exposed by tectonic uplift and weathering. In 1981, the bones of a Baleen whale were discovered in the area. Presented with an opportunity to both highlight the historical nature of the city and educate its users, the community suggested the idea of relating the park to the prehistoric artifacts found in the area during a public review of the schematic design.

The paleontology playground features a myriad of activities. There is a baleen whale climbing structure (like the skeleton unearthed on the site), which meets all the playground safety codes as well as providing ribs for the little ones to use, a jeep with diggers that work in the sand and all on a rubberized surface
Photos courtesy of David Volz Design

During Phase I, the design team researched and collaborated with a paleontologist and various artists to create a paleo-adventure playground that reflects the historical significance of the area.

“The elevation changes gave us lots of challenges, but also gave us lots of opportunity.” —David Volz

Custom panels on the manufactured play equipment include mammoths, camels, dolphins, whales, sloth and other creatures of the prehistoric period. Animal tracks, finials with fossil reliefs and fossil impressions in column caps reinforce the theme. Interpretive signage at the playground provides information on the prehistoric era.

A water-on-demand play feature has turtle water spouts for a stream experience. The Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles provided stampings of fossil fish, shells and seaweed to place on canisters so children can make rubbings with paper and crayons.

A Place for Gathering

The pavilion that sits at the north end of the soccer field is good for both intimate concerts or large events. The grass seating area on the side is a fibrous mix which allows for safety vehicles as well. The expanding shelf out the front is extended for fireworks displays, mayor’s speeches, large concerts and other big events. There is then plenty of room for people to sit on the soccer field while interpretive talks can be held in the small bleacher area. There is also covered seating in the picnic area along with barbecue space for cook outs. A bike trail runs along the edge which connects to the regional bike trail.

Rough, dry stack walls curve along the river shoreline and match those in the interior of the community center. The plantings are authentic to the prehistoric cycads and ferns. The front entrance area is more scientific with many learning opportunities, while the sports area is more playful in its approach.
Photo courtesy of Leslie McGuire

It Doesn’t Feel Like a Sports Park, But It I

Sports fields in the park are designed with the USGA sand-basemethod which is based on a perched water table. This system provides an excellent medium for sports turf growth, superior water management and allows high usage and lower maintenance. The sand base and its subsurface drainage system maximizes water removal during heavy precipitation and stores water in the ground when it’s not saturated. The hybrid Bermuda grass recovers faster and makes it a great playing surface.

The city hosted partnering workshops prior to the beginning of construction to establish a beneficial relationship between the owner and contractor. These workshops helped to establish the roles and responsibilities of the parties, build consensus and team goals, issue resolution, problem solving and negotiation.

Because sand based fields lead to the rapid removal of water, local teams are able to use the fields shortly after rain. The city was able to extend its usable space by placing the soccer fields in an Edison easement as a result of extended negotiations with the power provider. Reclaimed water is used throughout the park for irrigation purposes. In addition, softball fields and a little league field with a warm up area brings even more variety to the experience. There is access to all areas of the park from the shared parking areas.

At the entrance, the embedded fossils found during construction, which set the theme for the entire project, are embedded in the walls. A paleontologist was hired to stay on site for the entire three years, and all artifacts were delivered to her trailer for analysis and preservation. The water feature, using treated water, mirrors the river that fed down into the inland sea.
Photo courtesy of Leslie McGuire

Themed Plantings

Planting in the park also followed the prehistoric theme. The park contains over 100 Gingko trees, whose earliest leaf fossils date back to 270 million years ago. Sycamores, oaks, eucalyptus, Junipers, catonia, honey locusts conifers and other regional trees are also part of the plant palette at the park. Stonework throughout the landscape reflects the craftsman-style architecture of the community center. “We had a great collaboration with John Bates Associates, the architects,” says Volz. “It made the overall design and selection of materials lead to a very cohesive look and feel.”

The courtyard creates an outside room for the many festivals and concerts held at the center. The amphitheater-style seats double as steps to the lawn area for more informal seating, while the water sounds from the four fountains deaden the street noise.

The Archaeology of Laguna Hills

When Lake Forest, Calif. was graded in 1972, a very large limestone formation was uncovered. Many Pecten shells were found at the site and thus the name “Pecten Reef” was given by local paleontologists. The exposures represent the ocean floor, as it existed 17 million years ago. The site was destroyed by a housing project after only a limited time of research. A second exposure of reef was discovered in Laguna Hills in 1973.

The reef is unique, as it is part of the ancient sea floor that has been exposed by tectonic uplift and weathering processes. The uplift took place during the last million years and has formed the Santa Ana Mountains and the San Joaquin Hills. The rigid limestone did not bend during uplift but broke along local faults. A fault extends east-west across the northwest edge of the park and appears to extend in a general direction under the scoreboard on the high school baseball field.

A mix of stamped footprints on the walkways provide children with the opportunity to make up stories about just who was chasing whom. These footprints show a giant pelican and a big cat. What do you think happened?
Photo courtesy of Leslie McGuire


The marine muds, that later covered the limestone, contain plankton fossils, shark teeth, fish bones, marine mammal bones, tubeworms and seaweed imprints. A large baleen whale was collected between the park and the high school in 1981. 48 species of marine fossil vertebrates were found including shark teeth and Desmostylus. Fossils collected from the reef have been curated by the city and placed on display at the Laguna Hills Community Center.

The fossils include such diverse groups as sharks, bat rays, camels, primitive horses, dolphins, sirenians, baleen whales, bony fish, pinnipeds and several types of mollusks as well as rorqual whales, porpoises, long-nosed dolphins, killer whales, walruses, sea lions, sea cows, great white sharks, sea tortoises, giant pelicans, horses, and rhinos.

Planting in the park also followed the prehistoric theme. The park contains over 100 Gingko trees, whose earliest leaf fossils date back to 270 million years ago. Sycamores, oaks, conifers and other regional trees are also part of the plant palette at the park. Stonework throughout the landscape reflects the craftsman-style architecture of the community center.
Photos courtesy of David Volz Design

About David Volz Design

David Volz Design is committed to the creative design of outstanding public spaces. They develop landscapes, parks, sports fields and streetscapes to meet the specific needs of their communities. DVD designs special environments for those who seek recreation in a beautiful setting: for those who pursue recreation and competitive athletic endeavors on the playing field; and wonderful natural environments for those who are simply looking for respite.

“Ever mindful of our role as stewards of the land, DVD’s design philosophy includes careful consideration for realistic maintenance requirements and construction cost parameters. We understand the commitment we have to the public to deliver quality projects that offer a high return for the public funds invested; projects that can be maintained and deliver a lifetime of service to the communities they are built for.

“Our philosophy also embraces any opportunity to interact with the public to create environments that meet their needs. This last year three of our park projects won the Award of Excellence from CPRS — the highest award given in their categories.”

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David Volz Design designed all the planters and the seating squares, and the grade of the curving walkways is four percent, in keeping with the handicap accessibility guidelines. The trees include natives such as oaks, shoestring acacias and sycamores plus authentic trees such as gingkos and dawn redwoods.
Photo courtesy of Leslie McGuire

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December 8, 2019, 7:48 am PDT

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