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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

The writings of Don Juan Ortega on the Rancho Ortega Blog are the personal views of the author. This blog is not authored by nor does it have any affiliation whatsoever with any other person, place or entity using the name "Rancho Ortega" (or any similar name).

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The Schizophrenic Nature of San Juan Capistrano and the Need for a “Third Place” East of the 5

With the massive I-5/Ortega Highway construction project rapidly approaching, we were thinking about something that we read in one of the press releases about the road closures — namely, that the Ortega Highway bridge over the 5 is the major link between western San Juan Capistrano and eastern San Juan Capistrano.  Even more so, it caused us to think about how being bisected by Interstate 5 has really split San Juan Capistrano into two cities living under a single municipal umbrella.  Western San Juan Capistrano is physically and economically more connected to Dana Point and Laguna Niguel, while Eastern San Juan Capistrano is more isolated, and will be more connected to Ladera Ranch and the new Rancho Mission Viejo community, when finished.  Western San Juan holds the Mission, the historic town center, Los Rios Street and most of San Juan’s most venerable restaurants and attractions.  Eastern San Juan has retained most of the rural, open feeling and offers more middle class homes with larger yards.  Western San Juan has more struggle with crime and blight.  Eastern San Juan is isolated and lacks basic infrastructure like a grocery store or a drug store.  And with the constant congestion around the I-5/Ortega interchange, crossing the 5 is never a convenient affair.  The map below highlights the borders of San Juan Capistrano and illustrates the tenuous connection between East and West.  The red marker indicates the historic town center — the focal point of the proposed downtown master redevelopment plan.

City Limits of San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano is not alone among cities who have had their identities ruptured by an Interstate, and indeed, for most of us the 5 freeway has bisected San Juan for as long as we can remember.  But it does raise two important points.  First, it is possible that for the first time in years (even decades), the I-5/Ortega Highway interchange might actually not hinder movement between East and West San Juan Capistrano.  And if Caltrans and the City follow through on certain design elements (like installing wider sidewalks with decorative pavers and an aesthetic welcome sign), the Ortega interchange may actually facilitate such movement.

But we aren’t naive, and we understand that there will always be a need for a local “third place” — a third place that Eastern San Juan Capistrano lacks.  Consider this: if you lived in San Juan Capistrano, east of the 5, and you wanted to take your family for a quick, inexpensive local night out — where do you go?  Restaurants east of the 5 have an alarming failure rate, parking is an issue, and it seems like many of the larger retail centers are saturated with vacant storefronts.  None of the commercial centers in Eastern San Juan Capistrano could realistically be considered walkable.  Although it is controversial because it may negatively impact the rural vibe that Eastern San Juan Capistrano is known for, the Distrito La Novia project at least offers the potential to become Eastern San Juan’s own third place and provide some of that missing infrastructure and walkability.

Another option is Rancho Mission Viejo.  While the retail center being built at the corner of Antonio and Ortega is too small to serve as a regional hub or third place, the larger Ranch Plan has the potential to be all of that and more.  The City of San Juan Capistrano is struggling to come up with the money to pay for a costly, disruptive and time-consuming downtown redevelopment plan.  Rancho Mission Viejo has a blank canvas on which it can design, from scratch, the perfect small town downtown!  We’ll talk more about what makes a perfect downtown for a small city like San Juan or Rancho Mission Viejo, but we can tell you what it isn’t — it isn’t acres upon acres of strip malls and parking lots like you see in Irvine or Aliso Viejo.  It isn’t a row of big box retailers that are linked only by congested eight lane divided highways.  It isn’t a sea of fast food franchises where people don’t have to leave their cars to purchase a meal.  Nobody moved to rural South Orange County to live a dysfunctional suburban lifestyle, and it would be a tragedy if that’s what becomes of this beautiful land.  Indeed, it will be a betrayal of the centuries of history and tradition here on the ranch.

Eastern San Juan Capistrano needs a third place that is aesthetically and historically appropriate to the area — a walkable small town downtown that facilitates and reinforces the special sense of community that exists here.

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