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Whiting: Aliso Viejo, county’s newest city, is ready for its facelift

Whiting: Aliso Viejo, county’s newest city, is ready for its facelift

Demographics: 61.8 percent white, 17.1 percent Latino, 14.6 percent Asian, 5.7 percent two or more races

Sources: U.S. Census, Aliso Viejo

This is part of an occasional series on every city in Orange County.

Considered South County’s troubled toddler in the mid-1990s, with youth sports teams still forming, budding families and tiny trees, Aliso Viejo today is a city that has come into its own.

Still, to stay competitive in these fast-changing times, Orange County’s newest city already is planning significant updating.

In five years, the Town Center is expected to get a major facelift. Where vast asphalt parking lots now sit, plans are on the drawing board for a boutique hotel with 129 rooms as well as office and residential space above dozens of proposed ground-level shops and restaurants.

Additionally, 435 luxury apartments are in the works along with two affordable senior housing projects with 402 units. One is under construction, and nearby, a new medical building will sit on a bluff with views of the Santa Ana mountains. And if current trends continue, there will be more large-scale office buildings.

Of the makeover for the Town Center, which will include multitiered parking, more green space and improved pedestrian walk-through, City Manager David Doyle explains: “We need to provide places where people can spend quality time. We want to create something special, unique.”

With only 15 full-time city employees and a tradition of contracting out everything from parks to police, the City Council is even considering providing some services directly to citizens.


Today, Aliso Viejo has one of the most beautiful college campuses in California, if not the U.S. It is home to dozens of companies and boasts a household income in the six figures.

Those numbers come as no surprise to Doyle, who has lived in Orange County since he was 19. “We are a community of young families, very highly educated professionals and high incomes.”

Doyle’s pride in his city goes a notch higher. He calls Aliso Viejo a biotech hub. His claim may be a bit premature. Still, a little research suggests the city is headed in that direction.

The city manager points to a series of white buildings, the color of most office buildings in the city, and explains it is the world headquarters for Ambry Genetics, a genetics and genomics research and development company.

Ambry has about 400 employees and is preparing to expand its campus. Doyle marvels: “They keep doubling the number of employees.”

Biotech is booming in other areas of Aliso Viejo as well. In September, Allergan bought AqueSys Inc. for $ 300 million and promised it would stay in Aliso Viejo. AqueSys makes implants that lower eye pressure for people with glaucoma.

After relocating to Tustin, MicroVention, a leading neurovascular company, soon will return to Aliso Viejo with 800 employees after completion of a new 200,000-square-foot headquarters. LenSx Laser also is based in the city and manufactures laser-assisted cataract surgery technology.

Yet the city also has corporate diversity. United Parcel Service huddles against the 73 toll road and boasts about 1,000 workers. Pacific Life has more than 800 people. Fluor Corp. employs about 600.

There are digital firms as well, including QLogic and Smith Micro Software.


The secret spice to creating a successful live-work environment can be attributed to several things. The first three, of course, are location, location, location.

Aliso Viejo is only a few miles from the ocean and enjoys cool breezes in summer.

It is built on an east-facing slope and offers terrific views of the Saddleback Valley. It is adjacent to Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, one of the largest and most topographically diverse parks in the county with almost 4,000 acres.

With streets that seem to wind back on themselves, driving may seem confusing. Still, the street layout makes sense and commuting is usually a breeze.

I’ve made well over 100 visits, and six-lane thoroughfares move traffic quickly even during rush hours.

As we stop for a traffic light, Doyle reports that the city has among the highest rated intersections in the county.

Much of the city’s success can be attributed to the Mission Viejo Co., which by development time had the advantage of following earlier planned communities and knowing what worked – and what didn’t.

There is a 900-acre business park in the heart of the city, meaning most homes are only a few miles from work opportunities.

Likewise, the Town Center is centrally located and provides a there-there, something many Orange County cities lack.

Still, Doyle predicts that if the Town Center doesn’t modernize, it will become less attractive as the Laguna Hills Mall to the north transforms and to the east Ladera Ranch’s shopping district grows.

Like many other city managers in Orange County, Doyle anticipates millennials will look for housing that is walking-close to restaurants and shops.

With apartments and condos above its Town Center and a small amphitheater next to Edwards Cinema, I suggest Aliso Viejo already offers a walkable lifestyle. Still, Doyle sees opportunity.

Without an overall developer, the city is negotiating with several dozen Town Center owners and operators to ensure the makeover proceeds smoothly.

“The city,” Doyle says, “has to take on that role if anything is to be accomplished.”


As we check out the long lines at the new Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers at the Town Center, Community Services Director Karen Crocker wonders aloud how her Christmas presents are faring.

It turns out that the day before, Crocker did what the city’s self-styled “lean and mean” staff are used to: She stepped up.

On the eve of lighting the city’s first official Christmas tree, Crocker wrapped concrete blocks to look like giant presents.

Crocker confesses she is worried that someone overnight may have torn up the presents. But the tree is fine, the decorations beautiful. And the gift-wrap? In perfect condition.

She and Doyle practically high-five, their enthusiasm infectious. They attribute the success to the spirit of the community.

Yet the city’s employees deserve a holiday cheer as well. All 15 of them.

Contact the writer: dwhiting@ocregister.com

The Orange County Register – News Headlines : Real Estate News