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The Arbor on El Toro: Putting Pedestrians First

Landscape Architecture by NUVIS

Lake Forest officials used the $18 million El Toro Road renovation at the Arbor as an opportunity to establish a 'gateway' into the city from the I-5 freeway, going beyond a basic update of the streetscape. Pottery accents (Quick Crete) break up typical spaces between intersections with plantings and Rosa banksiae vines accentuated by uplights (Allscape).

El Toro Road, the busiest arterial highway in Lake Forest, Calif., serves hundreds of businesses and thousands of commuters on a daily basis.

As Lake Forest and the neighboring communities have grown - south Orange County has been a cornerstone of regional economic growth for nearly two decades - traffic congestion on El Toro became an obstacle to maintaining successful businesses, adding private investment, and encouraging renovations of existing properties.

Lake Forest officials saw the opportunity to turn an aging but busy retail and commercial district into a vibrant downtown. As the largest capital project since the town was incorporated in 1991, the $18 million roadway reconstruction had three main objectives: reduce traffic congestion, improve safety for traffic and pedestrians, and enhance aesthetics.

The landscape architect provided graphics and renderings, and joined in a series of community workshops between October 1997 and March 1998, where residents and commercial owners helped to formulate a master plan for redevelopment of the roadway and the 856 acres that surround it.

Several shade structures built with beams and furnished with benches create "resting niches" that shield pedestrians from the California sun. The stone and beam Craftsman-style structures punctuate the landscape esplanade and increase the sense of pedestrian space.

City officials and the landscape architect had a shared vision of a vibrant commercial and business district that would be a social center of the community.

A major component became the design of the pedestrian-oriented elements, making the pedestrian environment a primary design focus and the vehicle lanes secondary. (At one point, the project was scheduled to be the first "Extreme Make- over Public Works Project" by the Orange County Transit Authority.)

This rendering depicts the entrance to The Arbor at El Toro Road and Swartz Drive, near the exit from Interstate 5. The open green space and substantial plantings are designed to slow vehicular traffic and represent the agricultural legacy of Lake Forest.

The landscape architect quickly took a leadership role, not only with the design team but also with the city staff and public officials, emphasizing the importance of aesthetics and pedestrian inhabitability along the corridor.

Plans for the Arbor went deeper than just the 'flowery' name; the design embraced the city's agricultural legacy, which includes two large parks and hundreds of acres of eucalyptus trees, the latter planted by a city founder near the turn of the 20th century. By the time the project was completed, sixty thousand square feet of new landscaping was added along El Toro Road.

The tiered lawn and landscaping areas began as a civil engineering 'fix' to compel drivers to slow down, but adding a green open space at the busiest intersection for drivers as they leave the interstate became a defining element of the streetscape. Plantings include sodded Marathon II dwarf fescue, Texas privet and crape myrtle.

Plantings along The Arbor eventually included 261 trees and more than three thousand shrubs. Lagestroemia indica 'Crape Myrtle' and Prunus cerasifera 'Purple-Leaf Plum' trees were planted along the sidewalks for their hardiness and ease of maintenance; larger Platanus acerifolia 'London Plane' trees and area native Quercus agrifolia 'Coast Live Oaks' were chosen for specially planted street corners.

Other plants used throughout the streetscape include different strains of day lilies and hybrid roses; Ligustrum japonicum 'Texas Privet'; Pelargonium peltatum 'Ivy Geranium'; juniper 'Blue Creeper'; birds of paradise; Euonymous japonica 'Silver Princess' and sky blue sage. Banks rose vines were added to the pedestrian structures and the turf is sodded Marathon II dwarf fescue.

Pedestrians First, Vehicles Second
Once the design was agreed on and all of the permits were in place, builders broke ground in 2001 and continued on through the various phases of the project until 2006. The revitalization area extends one mile northeast along El Toro Road, from the Interstate 5 Freeway to Muirlands Boulevard, creating space for drivers as they leave the highway.

Traffic improvements for drivers include widening the street to a total of nine traffic lanes from the I-5 to Rockfield Blvd., and eight lanes from Rockfield Blvd. to Muirlands Blvd. Major identification elements were added at intersections, including a 'gateway' to the Arbor District at the intersection of El Toro Road and Swartz Drive; improved, synchronized traffic signals along El Toro Road from the I-5 to Trabuco Road by the civil engineer (prime); and newly landscaped medians and right-of-ways.

The pedestrian walkways are buffered from vehicle traffic by plantings on both sides of the sidewalk, including purple-leaf plum and London Plane trees, as well as different strains of day lilies, hybrid roses, and other flowers and shrubs. The plantings create separation for pedestrians to enjoy the landscaping with less interference from the busy adjacent roadway.

The Arbor theme was carried to the medians as well, with tree and flower plantings and a low El Dorado Stone retaining wall with a brick cap. The design team was conscious of the added pressure on Lake Forest residents and business owners created by the multi-year construction, and were able to keep El Toro Road open throughout the process as not to burden the locals. The contractor maintained a minimum of two traffic lanes in each direction throughout the build, and nearby residents and businesses were notified of construction activity.

The redesign also made access to shopping centers easier, added bus shelters and pedestrian seating niches, along with banners identifying and celebrating the new Arbor District. New lighting fixtures were also included, and distinctive, Craftsman-style architecture was selected as the overall theme for the area. The use of the Craftsman design is visible at The Arbor in the overhanging eaves and the exposed beams and rafters in the structures; hand-placed stonework in the structures' support columns; and the mixed materials used throughout the structures.

Native and water-wise plants, including coast live oaks and sky blue sage shrubs, punctuate the median. Protected crosswalk breaks comprise the median noses, while the wider stretches feature a low stone wall (El Dorado Stone) with a brick cap. Plantings are lit by SL-34 model uplights from Allscape, cued by light- sensitive photocells.

Entering downtown Lake Forest now funnels drivers and walkers alike beneath signs for The Arbor, supported by 25-foot-tall stone and metal towers on each side of the road, along with pedestrian plazas, lush foliage and sheltered walkways. The Craftsman-style structure of the towers and the rest of the architecture define the 'gateway' to the Arbor District and the rest of the renovated streetscape.

At night, the ambience from the lit gateway towers and wind-chime-like metal sycamore leaves creates an enticing welcome to the area. Multiple spaces within and under structures near the entryway are available for relaxing, social interaction, or just enjoying the multi-tiered levels of landscaping.

A 25-foot stone and metal Craftsman-style tower marks the new 'gateway' to the Arbor District on each side of El Toro Road, leading to downtown Lake Forest. The metal sycamore leaves within the signage (Hunt Design) creates a wind- chime effect, and floodlights (Orgatech) on the tower add nighttime ambience.

The tiered lawn areas provide an unexpected open green space at the busiest intersection for drivers leaving Interstate 5, which acts as a traffic-calming device - subliminally compelling motorists to slow down and enjoy the unique corridor environment, originally conceived as a civil engineering 'fix' for speeding motorists.

Planted parkways provide a buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway, and the pedestrian walkways and seating areas. The pedestrian corridor fosters a unique environment by disconnecting walkers from street traffic via vegetation. Resting niches - stone Craftsman-style pergolas with benches and planted pottery accents - break up the typical spaces between intersections, and the architectural team designed banners to announce and celebrate the district along the landscaped corridor.

The "walkability" of the corridor, as defined by the extensive plantings, tiered landscaping, "resting niches," and other elements like expanded, aesthetically improved bus stops all fulfill the city's vision for a vibrant commercial/business district that doubles as a social center of the community.

Sixty thousand feet of landscaping was added along El Toro Road, including 261 trees and more than three thousand shrubs. Forty electrical poles nearby were removed, and a maze of overhead power lines was moved beneath the street to further enhance the view.

Continued Expansion & Recognition
Following the renovation's completion, the shopping centers, retail space and related businesses along El Toro Road have grown into the expanded and expansive streetscape.

New outlets have continued to move in, and existing storefronts have upgraded their looks to match the Craftsman theme of the public space. The roadway's redevelopment has attracted major new investments to the business and retail area, including two large retail projects.

Components of the new bus shelters, including the benches (Keystone Ridge Design), stone (El Dorado Stone), roofing (Eagle Roof) and Craftsman-style rafters and corbels (Douglas Fir) were added to further the design team's vision of making The Arbor a social center for locals.

The Arbor project was recognized for its forward-thinking approach, and earned several awards, including the SCC/ASLA Merit Award in 2007; the American Society of Civil Engineers' Project Achievement Award for APWA Project of the Year in 2006; the 2007 TRANNY Award, from the California Transportation Foundation; and the 2007 Consulting Engineers and Land Surveyors of California Award of Excellence.

The Arbor on El Toro is still evolving, creating an urban mix of offices, stores, restaurants, and civic and entertainment uses within a revitalized downtown environment.

Project Team
Architect: David A. Price
Artist: Lawrence A. Nelson
Client: PSOMAS for the City of Lake Forest, CA
Civil Engineer - Prime: PSOMAS
Contact/Owner: Luis Estevez, City of Lake Forest
Irrigation Consultant: Sweeney + Associates
Landscape Architect: NUVIS
- Perry A. Cardoza, ASLA

Bench & Trash Receptacle: Keystone Ridge Designs
- Bench: model RE26, color bronze
- Trash receptacle: model M
T3-32, color bronze
Brick Cap: Thompson Building Materials
- Pacific Clay 3 Header Course, Color: Brown Flash
Checkerboard Concrete Paving:
- Acid Wash, 3/8" Arizona Cobble Exposed Aggregate
Cobble Groundcover: Del Rio Median Cobble
Floodlights: Orgatech,12-126QE
Maintenance Strip Cobble: 6"-9" River Rock cobblestone
Mowcurb: 6" concrete strip with 3/4" exposed edge radius
Pilaster Base: Cast-in-place concrete with 1" chamfer
Pottery: Quick Crete - Model QR-PX3429P
Rafters, Beams & Corbels: Douglas Fir
Recessed Wall/Stair Light: Hadco, RSB-2HT-5F13E
Roof: Eagle Roofing Products
- Concrete Shake, Ponderosa #5689
Signage & Art: Hunt Design, Concept by NUVIS
Tower Structure by David A. Price, AIA
Stone: El Dorado Stone
- 80% Cheyenne Limestone
- 20% Sierra River Rock
Uplights: Allscape, SL-34

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August 20, 2019, 10:13 am PDT

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