An Interview with Master Planner Richard Reese

In 1970, after canceling his plans to spend the next year in the Greek Islands, Richard Reese would indefinitely delay his trip to design the "Urban Village" of Rancho Santa Margarita. Previously having attended the University of Southern California to obtain his Architecture and City Planning Degree, Reese had an actual vision while in college that came to him in a dream to build a "Lifestyle Village" community that would be self-sufficient to sustain and nurture all residents businesses and visitors. Filling him with purpose and direction he was one day asked by his USC Planning Professor what he wanted to do with his education. Reese confidently replied, "I'm going to design a city of 50,000 people in a cattle pasture in a canyon out in the middle of nowhere." Reese's vision and goal would be realized almost 25 years later when he was introduced to the land known as the Plano Trabuco Valley by the landowners, the Moiso family. This provided the perfect opportunity for Richard's vision of an "Urban Village in a Permanent Open Space Setting" to become a reality. Reese's design plans included the City of Rancho Santa Margarita west of Plano Trabuco; the residential neighborhoods and Community Property of SAMLARC, the business and industrial parks know as SAMCORP, and the commercial/retail shopping centers including Mercado del Lago and the Town Center.

Q & A What led you to becoming the Master Planner of Rancho Santa Margarita? RSM was the culmination of a career path that led me from a USC Architecture and City Planning Degree to a forty-year career Master Planning Southern California cities, (1954-1957) to the Planning Director for the City of Anaheim, (1957-1964) to the Master Planning of the Irvine Ranch, (1965-1979) to the Master Planning of Rancho Santa Margarita, (1979-1993) (And subsequent to RSM - the 200 square-mile Master Planning of the Capital City of Hidalgo, Mexico, and finally, the 80 square-mile Master Planning for the Coastal Area of the Southerly one-third of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico) It should be kept in mind that I had the pleasure of working with many Associate Professionals during my career. Any reference to an “I” should be considered a “Collective “I.” Don Smith, Steve Kellenberg and Tom Staley were core members of the consultant team for thirty years, from 1965 to 1995! My career was motivated by a desire to create “generative” living environments that offered residents an opportunity to experience lifestyles more nurturing than those offered by the typical pattern of urban-sprawl smothering the landscape of the Greater Los Angeles Basin. The concept “Generative” was paramount in all endeavors. My definition: “The bringing forth of that which did not heretofore exist, in such a manner that it is nurturing to both oneself and to others.”

What initial challenges did you encounter when you began your planning of Rancho Santa Margarita? First thing, was to create a Consulting Team equal to the challenge. That’s when I, once again, recruited Don and Steve and Tom and the resources of their respective planning and engineering companies. All had worked with me in the 120 square-mile Irvine Ranch experience and were trusted and seasoned professionals in Master Planning and quality “New Community” Development. Precedent to the Village of Rancho Santa Margarita we completed a contextual Master Plan for the entirety of the sixty square-mile “Rancho Mission Viejo” Ranch. Thus informed, we began the challenge/opportunity of the 5,000 acre “Plano Trabuco Valley.” What actually convinced me to take this job, was that the Plano Trabuco Valley appeared identical to a valley I envisioned in a dream as a USC student of Architecture and City Planning. That vision haunted me for expression throughout the fourteen Urban Design years while bringing forth the Villages of Irvine, each one a progressive design for enhanced lifestyle living. At Mayor Carole Gamble’s request, at the beginning of our own City’s very first “State of the City” address in 2001, I told the story of my “Dream,” that inspired a career-long “Vision,” that found it’s home in an “Urban Village in a Permanent Open Space Setting,” that fourteen years later became our very own “City” of Rancho Santa Margarita! The attendant audience of the natural leaders who had emerged from the fabric of our initial residents believed in that vision enough to actually make it happen in the years to follow. They became the true “Visionaries” of our Village community, and remain so today.

How did you proceed to create the design for Rancho Santa Margarita? Actually, having a Master Plan for the entire sixty square-mile Ranch, we then chose to begin at the North end of the Ranch, in the 5,000 acre “Plano Trabuco Valley” adjacent to O’Neill Regional Park;” nearer to our primary market-area, versus the South end near San Juan Capistrano. First things first: You begin with a mission statement; in our case it was expressed as an Affirmation of Intent: “It is possible to create an “Urban Village in a Permanent Open Space Setting” in such a manner that its residents will have an opportunity to choose to live enhanced lifestyles that reach beyond the mere satisfaction of basic human needs, by embracing wellness, wellbeing, full self-expression and participative governance – as normal everyday activities.” That affirmation was displayed on a banner on the wall of my office for fourteen years along with the most current planning. Anyone in the community was free to visit and discuss the plans with me. Jack Wynns, publisher of “El Campanero” was a regular visitor. Market Strategy: To provide residents with lifestyle opportunities consistent with our Affirmation of Intent, by providing opportunities for all consumers: singles, young married, young family, mature family, active retired and inactive retired congregate care, a wide spectrum of housing types and price ranges; for such is the nature of a true “Village.” This composite of homes and residents in itself, blends it all together into a Village atmosphere. It is also the logical marketing strategy for a new village surrounded by competitive community’s featuring estate lots and higher priced homes for sale. Our competitive position was to be all-inclusive, one-of-a-kind! Master Planning & Urban Design: The team work begins by assessing, inventorying and respecting the natural resources of the planning area: The Plano’s grasslands, Trabuco and Tijeras creeks lush old oak trees along North Facing Slopes and groves of old Sycamore trees shading their valleys. Tree bark, bush foliage and grasses were collected and used to inspire an initial Architectural Color Scheme for structures throughout the Village. We were surprised when the Archeology team found credible evidence of a sizeable “village” of sorts, previously occupied 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Ours will not be the first residents to call this valley, “Home.” Those, and other lands were set aside as permanent open space. The final tally of resources resulted in one-half, 50%, of the 5,000-acre planning area permanently conserved for open space and park and recreation purposes!

How did you tie it all together into a unique “Lifestyle Village”?

The overall sense of singular place is emphasized by the fact that one must cross a bridge to arrive or depart from this unique Village of Rancho Santa Margarita. When you depart or return, you feel you are leaving from, and returning to, your Village Home, not just your dwelling. There is a community trails system, referred to as the “Lifestyle System,” because it connected with major community facilities throughout the Village. It was hoped that someday the trail’s plaza points might feature thematic-historic community art. “Village Design Criteria” focuses on “The View from the Road.” Special attention was given to repetitive Spanish-Mediterranean themed elements, including tile-roofs, white community walls, neighborhood entryway criteria, signage criteria and lush highway landscaping with ground-cover, shrubs and thematic street-trees to create memorable “Images of the Village.” Consistent architectural features were included in both residential and commercial areas. I still have the bulky thick notebook of all village design criteria, which will eventually reside in the archives of the RSM Historical Society.

What has come true regarding the elements of the Master Plan and the actual arrangement of land uses? The prime goal was for a Village of 50,000 residents, with a full complement of community facilities offering a full measure of opportunities for fully expressed lifestyle choices for all ages of residents. Rancho Santa Margarita is all of that, and has all of that. The arrangement of land uses is exactly as proposed on the Master Plan: Peripheral Residential Villages at the East Lake, West Golf Course and North Hillside Neighborhood, plus a Central one in the heart of the Town Center, for local walk-in merchant support. The Town Center and Business Park are as planned. The amount of retail space provides tax revenues to the City in excess of annual budgets, providing needed reserves.

Are there nuanced design features that residents may take for granted, but were unique and specifically included to enhance resident’s lifestyle expression? First, the “Village” design concept of having everything one needs in their day-to-day living within a compact and convenient walking and driving distance environment. I once taught a night-school class at UCI where I gave the students a map of Orange County and asked them to put a dot on everywhere family members commuted to for all activities. They were amazed at the number of separate trips and miles traveled when you plotted the trips by all members of their family. We then talked about how a “Village” life might differ and how it might benefit them. The end result was an appreciation for how much more self-expression quality time they would have together as “Family.” It can be life changing. Then, there is the consistent Urban Design Criteria applied throughout the Village’s Spanish influenced Architecture and Mediterranean Landscaping, including white community walls, and tile roofs. Then there are the 80’ mini-parks with sycamore groves at major highway intersections, to call drivers attention to approaching pedestrian crossings, to soften the anxiety of intersecting traffic, and encourage politeness. Most subtle, are the experience enhancing features incorporated into the trail around the Lago De Santa Margarita Lake. Of course, the lake itself must be level and flat. However, the surrounding one-mile trail itself subtly meanders both vertically and horizontally, interspersed with level “gathering places” and their benches, arranged to encourage conversation amongst strangers. The mood and view changes about every 100 yards, each interval offering varied sun, shade, shadow experiences as well as sequential experience venues: Starting at the Plaza, proceeding Northerly: Alder Grove, 14 Bench trail-junction Gathering Place, Free-Play Meadow, Sycamore Grove, Hillside Grassy Picnic Area, Rocky Point Fishing and Meditation, 500 person Amphitheatre, Alder Grove, Rocky Point Fishing and Meditation, Alder Grove, 4 bench Gathering Place, initial views of the Picnic Grove and Swimming Lagoon The Beach Club Entry, Sycamore Grove, 10 Bench trail-junction Gathering Place, Sycamore Grove, 5 Bench Gathering and Meditation Place with views of the Mercado Plaza activities and night-lighting, Sycamore Grove, the Antonio lake-end celebratory arrangement of benches and seating-walls, Jacaranda Groves, and the Flagpole waving “Old Glory” to all pausing or passing by or attending the Sunrise or Sunset, ceremonial flag rising and lowering. Other subtleties: There is nowhere to stand where you can see the entire lake, making it seem even larger than it is, and, it is never so wide that you could not recognize someone you know on the other side – a congeniality factor. Finally, the water is only 18” deep for the first six-feet out from the bulkhead – a safety factor. The Plaza, Lake and multipurpose trail served as “Downtown and Central Park” for a decade or so – and by agreement, “A good time was had by all.” Today, Ten-thousand celebratory souls surge together annually, on the Fourth of July, enjoying their promised, “Lifestyle Enhancing Urban Village in A Permanent Open Space Setting.” Perhaps pioneers, evolving self-chosen ways of more beneficial life expression. We are a Village celebrating our 30th Anniversary with a generation of children who were birthed, grew-up and matured here that now raise children of their own. It is marvelous!

You did an interview with Bob Brown from the television show 20-20 in 1992. How did that happen? A phone call. I was relaxing in my living room listening to, “A Summer Place” by the Mystic Moods Orchestra. When I answered a voice said, “Oh, Summer Place, I love that song.” Then he said he was producer of the TV show 20-20 and would like to do a video interview with me. I though it was a joke and asked him why he wanted to do that. He noted that our advertising program had resulted in a full column article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, continued to an interior column. Whenever that happens, he explained, that is a sure-fire “human interest” story. He asked the Urban Land Institute for a contact person and they referred him to me. He came with a camera and sound crew and filmed it in 35mm film. Touring a walking trail he filmed children playing on a gym structure and invited their parents to participate, showing how their lifestyle was enhanced by living here. He ended the 20-20 piece with a reference to ”Shangri-La.” This helped our marketing program, especially commercial and high-tech firms.

What has been the most rewarding aspect for you, watching a Village you master planned grow and flourish? The master planning began in the Fall of 1979. The first residents arrived in the Spring of 1986 and I became a homeowner in 1987. My planning role was complete in the summer of 1993. Over those 14 years, I was an active participant helping to evolve the dream and the vision of an “enhanced lifestyle opportunity village in a permanent open-space setting.” It happened, responsible leaders believed in it enough to keep it happening all the way to completion. I was living the dream and became a different person in the process of total immersion with others in something worth doing. It was a satisfying cap-stone to a lifetime career that was challenging and never easy. I am now enjoying retirement, reading and writing and breakfast at Starbucks meeting other residents making new friends. Time has proven the wisdom and truth of my USC Planning Professor who believed that the long term value of a Master Plan, will last only as long as someone believes in it enough to make it happen – each and every day. It becomes a measure of how those who aspire to or serve in high office may be valued. The Dream, the Vision, the Master Plan have become, the City of Rancho Santa Margarita; an “Urban Village in a Permanent Open Space Setting” – as originally dream-envisioned! My heart felt, “Thank You,” to all of you who, “Believe in it enough to make it happen!”


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