Lake Elsinore, Calif.—a town of 50,000, located 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles—is best known to outsiders as a destination for waterskiing and hang gliding, and as the unofficial but self-professed birthplace of motocross. But in 2007, Lake Elsinore was also home to an architectural competition for a new civic center complex. The brainchild of City Council member and redevelopment agency chairman Thomas Buckley, the competition featured a jury that included progressive architects such as Teddy Cruz of Estudio Teddy Cruz and Ming Fung of Hodgetts + Fung, and it received over 100 entries and 29 submittals from as far away as Rome. Three finalists were selected and meetings were held, but, as often is the case, things did not go according to the original plan.

The competition brief called for submitting architects to choose one of two sites: a parcel in the historic downtown or a site along the nearby lake. Participants were asked to provide a master plan as well as designs for a city hall, library, post office, and other civic buildings. The jury selected three finalists: Koning Eizenberg Architecture from Santa Monica, Calif.; San Diego—based Hanna Gabriel Wells; and Brian Healy Architects of Boston. Notably, all three firms chose the lakefront site, each maintaining that the new civic center should be by the lake from which the city derives its name. "Personally, I would like the civic center to be down by the lake, to pull people through downtown," Buckley says.

The jury was very happy with the three final designs and voted unanimously for the Hanna Gabriel Wells scheme. But at public meetings held to get residents' input on a winner, it became clear that more research was necessary. When confronted with the reality of a lakefront scheme, many residents realized they wanted the civic center to be closer to town to attract foot traffic to their businesses. The City Council realized that maybe what was needed to revitalize Lake Elsinore was not simply a city hall, but an entire downtown master plan. At that point, the council canceled the competition, paid each of the three finalists $10,000 for their time and design work, and decided to regroup.

Since then, the city has engaged Cooper Carry to complete a master planning study for the entire downtown area. Public meetings are already under way, and the city hopes to approve a plan this summer. Cooper Carry will determine where the civic center will go, and the size of the plot, but Buckley is not averse to inviting back one of the competition winners.

It's not uncommon to hear of an architecture competition that fizzles, but in the case of Lake Elsinore, both the city and the architects learned a lot from the process. Nathan Bishop, from Koning Eizenberg Architecture, uses his firm's Lake Elsinore design as a teaching tool in his planning classes at SCI-Arc. A variation on one of the three schemes may make an appearance in Cooper Carry's master plan, and—who knows?—it might be next door to an as-yet-unplanned motocross hall of fame.