Historic preservation of Aliso Viejo Ranch hits another roadblock

Laguna Hill, CA – City Councilman Ross Chun has seen plans for development at the Aliso Viejo Ranch site fail for the past 12 years.

The 7.7-acre ranch and its five original structures – a barn, a bunkhouse and three sheds – are the last remaining vestige of the Moulton Ranch, purchased by Lewis Moulton in 1895. The 22,000-acre ranch covered what today encompasses South County cities, including Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and Laguna Woods.

The county gave the ranch to AVCA in 1998 but found itself unable to decide on an economically viable development plan, so the city assumed control of it in 2006.

A decade ago, Aliso Viejo Ranch seemed destined for historic preservation. Five years ago, the land looked like it would be home to a $19 million community center that would house the Boys and Girls Clubs of Capistrano Valley.

In the past year, the City Council has returned its focus to preservation, but three design plans failed to meet council members’ expectations when presented Wednesday. The council voted 4-0 to reject designs by Thirtieth Street Architects. City Councilman Phil Tsunoda was absent for the presentation and vote.

“When the city took control of the ranch, their comment was that AVCA had sat on the property for far too long,” said Chun, who also served on the Aliso Viejo Community Association board. “The city said it would develop there, but here we are 10 years later and it’s in the same state..”

Momentum had been building for the ranch’s preservation. After deciding a year ago to scrap the community center development plan, the city has held three workshops to gather community and City Council input on what design elements would be of most use to residents.

Thirtieth Street Architects – which got a $50,000 contract with the city in November – attended the most recent workshop in January. The three plans presented Wednesday illustrated various levels of preservation.

In one plan, three of the buildings would merely be stabilized to prevent further decay. In another, the buildings would be refurbished for everyday use. In the third plan, the buildings would be razed to make way for a new, 14,000-square-foot central building.

Cost estimates for each project are $16.4 million, $16.2 million and $19.5 million, respectively, according to a report by Thirtieth Street Architects.

Mayor Mike Munzing and City Councilman Bill Phillips expressed dismay over the cost estimates – the scrapped plan community center plan’s $19 million price tag was the primary point of objection. Mayor Pro Tem Dave Harrington and Chun said the three plans lacked key elements discussed in the workshops.

Harrington and Chun noted a lack of dedicated spaces for a teaching garden, a working ranch and outdoor educational spaces, all of which were discussed at a workshop with the council and Thirtieth Street Architects in January.

“When I look at these plans, I see parking lots and a big building,” Chun said. “I don’t see most of the things we talked about.”

Harrington said he felt his time visiting other refurbished historic sites, like the Irvine Ranch Historic Park, and discussing potential uses for the ranch in previous workshops was wasted.

Jim Wilson, a partner with Thirtieth Street Architects, said the plans may not accurately explain the project and that his group can come back before the council to discuss how the site uses can be consolidated and how to move forward.

Harrington said if the revised plans are unsatisfactory, the City Council may be brought to a point where it must decide whether it will “fish or cut bait.”

“If you look at the history of that property, many organizations have failed to move forward without breaking the bank,” Harrington said. “If you can’t resolve that, that leaves one of two options: sell it or leave it an open piece of land that does nothing but sit there until those buildings disintegrate.”