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Is It a Creek? I Hear Frogs!

By Bob Borthwick

As I was walking back into town after the Sawdust preview party last Tuesday night, I entered the new pedestrian walkway at the north end of the Village Entrance. A group of people loudly commented, “This is great! Listen to the frogs!” A companion replied, “That can’t be real…it must be a frog soundtrack like they use at Disneyland.” Yes, it was almost surreal. I taught an urban design class at UCI in the early 1990s, and I used the Village Entrance as a class project. In the nearly 30 years since, I have been trying to raise respect for Laguna Canyon Creek as a “real creek,” and not just a rusty chain-link enclosed eyesore. And there they were, groups of people happily strolling along the newly landscaped creek pathway, where formerly there was just oil-stained asphalt and parked cars.

When the concept of a parking structure and public park was voted down by the Council in 2013, a scaled-back Village Entrance concept (a 30-foot-wide landscaped strip along the road) was proposed by city staff as the alternative. Recognizing that the new Village Entrance could be so much more, a small group of residents, designers and artists from Village Laguna and the Beautification Council created a pro-bono alternative plan that was presented to the Council. This plan included removing asphalt and installing permeable pavers, creating an area that could be used for events as well as parking, adding landscaped pedestrian areas, and other elements to create a more holistic and attractive project. Fortunately, the Council and the consultants liked this citizen-prepared plan, and it became the basis for the new Village Entrance. Phase 1, from the creek to Laguna Canyon Road, is now complete. The rear side of the creek, and the Lumberyard parking lot, will have additional upgrading after the summer season is over.

The final plans proposed to replace the old rusty chain-link fence along the creek with “new” chain-link fence. As an extra-cost alternative, a cable style fence was proposed that would have had a horizontal steel cable every 4 inches to a height of 5 feet tall. No other creek fencing options were offered. Members of the public and the Council were not supportive of either fence design. At the final vote to approve the construction contract, with a motion by council member Whalen, the Council deleted the chain-link fence from the project and asked the staff to return with additional fence designs. The current metal fencing with contrasting concrete posts was one of those requested new options. This design is simple, rustic, and its brown color is respectful of the creek as a natural feature of the site. A huge improvement over the chain-link proposal that would have been devastating. The Council vote on the fencing was a game-changer.

Like the creek, that in the last decades has been derided and threatened with undergrounding, the venerable and historic sewer treatment structure has been threatened with removal. It finally won a permanent place at the Village Entrance table. This iconic structure is so enchanting that it’s hard to understand why some consider it such a punching bag and unworthy of restoration. In any case, this award-winning 1930s WPA-financed structure will be saved and ultimately can be re-purposed into a visitor’s center, gallery, restaurant or other use. When that happens, I predict it will rival the lifeguard tower as one of Laguna’s favorite photo-ops.

Hats off to the volunteer group of residents who helped guide the successful vision, to the city staff and consultants who were receptive to citizen-generated ideas, and especially to the previous City Council who had the foresight to support the project. As others have commented, the Village Entrance may not be perfect in every detail, but it is a lot more welcoming than it was before—as announced by the frogs.

Bob Borthwick is a landscape architect who has served on several city-appointed committees and task groups. Past local projects include Alta Laguna Park and portions of Heisler Park.

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