The Built Environment

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Laguna Canyon Remains a Work in Progress

Roger McErlane
Roger McErlane

Anyone who departs Laguna Beach northward passes through a six-mile stretch of extraordinary natural open space of rolling hills, rock outcroppings, green wetlands and long vistas to Saddleback Mountain, and in the far distance, the snow capped silhouette of Mt. San Jacinto.

This driving experience ends abruptly at the Irvine boundary line with a raw graded slope about 35 feet tall spanning what had been two separate hills. The slope is intended to hide the residential buildings behind a dam-like berm. Hence the project’s name, Hidden Canyon

The original plan was developed seven years ago by the Irvine Company. The conditions of approval required that the project did not visually intrude into the natural open space and stay quietly hidden behind natural or natural-like landforms. The idea that appealed to Laguna Canyon Foundation was to “conceal” the project within the adjacent hills and that any additional grading necessary to achieve that would blend with the natural terrain.

In the interim, the recession-stalled project was sold to Toll Bros., a national homebuilder. All previous conditions of approval were supposedly kept in place, except that Irvine approved an increase in density to 258 units from 160, a 60% increase. So now we have what we call a two-pound cat in a one-pound bag.

The previous conceptual discussions and agreements of “natural like grading” and “blending into the natural terrain” got lost in translation and the new understanding of the agreement was to hide the buildings from view as opposed to hiding the project from view in total. So we ended up with a very abrupt dam like earth slope facing the Laguna open space preserve and State Route 133.

I had retired from the Irvine Company in 2009, long after I spotted orange fencing encircling the project last year. When I asked the city manager if he knew what to expect, city staff and I analyzed the plans and discovered the new details. City staff and Canyon Foundation leaders attempted discussions with the developer over softening the visual impact of the project, but since the plans had been approved we were sort of tilting after windmills.

Ultimately, the developer agreed to soften the graded berm and add landscape and rock outcroppings to blend in with the surrounding land. Hopefully that will soften the man-made appearance of the abrupt slope.

If you want to see the work in progress, turn off 133 at Lake Forest Drive and take the first right into the project.

The graded slope banks defining the interior bowl of terraced lots is reminiscent of the Kennecott Copper mine at the outskirts of Salt Lake City: a very large unnatural hole in the ground shaped by a machine trying to maximize view lots. The true impact of a two-pound cat in a one-pound bag can now be seen.

Though it may not be fair to pass judgment in this naked and exposed condition, without houses and without landscape, it will give you a pretty good idea of what is to come. Soon the guard-gated entry will be installed and access will not be accessible to us common folk.

Credit for lessening the project’s visual impact should be given to the Irvine Company and the involvement of Laguna’s city staff and the Laguna Canyon Foundation. With the exception of the big berm, we got what we hoped for.

This is one of the last developments that impacts the open space preserve around Laguna. The only other development site nearby is a 75-acre parcel between the 133 and Old Laguna Canyon Road. Zoned by Irvine for commerce, it will most likely become a corporate headquarters of four-story buildings and substantial parking lots with the potential for more traffic.

Like the housing project, Laguna cannot stop the development, but can play a role in shaping its outcome. Make sure your City Council keeps their eyes on it.


Local resident Roger McErlane was formerly senior vice president of community planning and design for the Irvine Company. The community planner and landscape architect serves on Laguna Beach’s Design Review Board.



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  1. Nice recap of a distressing story. Thanks to the parties who succeeded in limiting the damage after many months of meetings. I attended just one, and all of the necessary players were there, but some were not very engaged. This is a cautionary tale that reminds us that when land or views are saved ‘forever,’ it means we still have to make sure they stay that way. Lagunans have a rare sensitivity to open space and aesthetics that our neighbors do not share.


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