San Clemente Urban Design Guidelines
"Restoring the Founder's Vision"

Client: City of San Clemente, California.


El Camino Real. New pedestrian-oriented infill development.

The San Clemente General Plan Urban Design Element and citywide Design Guidelines were prepared during a two-year study process that included close work with a Council-appointed Citizens Advisory Committee. The process involved extensive citizen participation through public workshops, meetings with City Commissions and close liaison with neighborhood leaders.

The Urban Design Plan and Guidelines establish clear design policies and specific guidelines for future development in the city. Many of the design principles of the city's historic 1925 plan, considered one of the most innovative town plans in the western states, are restored. The guiding principles of the new Plan promote development of a denser, more compact city that maximizes pedestrian opportunities and provides new protection of hillsides, canyons and other important natural features.

The San Clemente Plan of 1925

San Clemente was founded in 1925 as a planned community with a strong design vision that gave a clear order to the older districts of the city. The original city plan contained many concepts that are relevant today: a downtown and residential neighborhoods with pedestrian emphasis, high-quality public places located throughout the city, sensitivity of development to the natural setting.

The 1925 San Clemente Plan was a modified grid carefully adapted to topography. It minimized grading, preserved coastal canyons and landforms, and emphasized connectivity of neighborhoods. Major streets were oriented perpendicular to the oceanfront in order to create public view corridors toward the water and visually connect the entire community with the sea. The Plan created an exceptional pedestrian environment through wide tiled sidewalks, street trees and public buildings sited at visually prominent places throughout the city.

After a successful initial building period during the late 1920's that produced most of the city's public buildings and distinguished older neighborhoods, the vision fell victim to the Depression. Most building stopped and was not resumed until after World War 11. During the postwar period, much of the city deteriorated to the automobile-dominated development patterns common to other areas of Southern California. San Clemente had lost the strong urban design direction upon which it was founded. Most recently, development of the inland hillside neighborhoods during the early and mid 1980's brought problems of mass grading of hillsides, complex street patterns that divided neighborhoods into isolated enclaves, virtually complete reliance on the automobile for transportation, and repetitive, monolithic residential building types.

The San Clemente City Council initiated the Urban Design Element and Design Guidelines in an effort to reverse the prevailing design and development practices that were rapidly destroying the community's historic character and landscape.


San Clemente. Oceanfront grid and neighborhoods developed under the City Plan of 1925.


Plan Elements. "Restoring the Founder's Vision"

The Urban Design Element and Design Guidelines re-establish a set of strong, clear urban design principles for future development in the city.

A revitalization program for the Del Mar (Downtown) business district provides incentives for mixed-use development, including new infill buildings and live-work opportunities. A parking district with shared public parking will replace many of the private lots and reduce on-site parking requirements which had hampered new businesses and development.

Throughout the city, emphasis is placed on creating high quality pedestrian environments. Strong site planning principles for building frontages, public streetscapes, on-site open spaces and parking lot locations are specified in the Design Guidelines.

Illustrative designs were prepared for the historic Pier Bowl and North Beach districts. These areas are centers of public activity for residents and visitors.

Design principles for the Marblehead Coastal Development, a large undeveloped area of prime land on the coastal plain, emphasize building a walkable urban neighborhood focused on public places and a clearly perceived street system oriented toward the oceanfront.

Design principles for the inland neighborhoods emphasize developing mixed-use village centers with pedestrian access to all residential areas and public transit connections to other parts of the city and region. Strong measures to protect hillsides and other natural features from development are prescribed through ordinances and design principles illustrated in the Guidelines.

Project Team

Principals: Gerald Gast and Dan Hillmer. Kathryn Fulhorst, Landscape Architect. Tim McGinty, Consulting Architect.

City of San Clemente: Jim Barnes, Planning Director. Catherine O'Hara, Project Manager.


El Camino Real Street Design.