Santana: Public Spaces Should Reflect The Public That Pays For Them

Norberto Santana Jr.

Demolition of Building 16 at county civic center

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Orange County supervisors are poised to soon begin creation of one of Orange County’s grandest civic spaces.

Yet almost no one knows anything about it.

It’s an unfortunate par for the course for our current board of supervisors, which has a private penchant for secrecy and a very public distaste for public comment.

Yet it’s the grand idea of a robust public counter that fuels the first phase of development of an 11-acre “superblock” in downtown Santa Ana – one that features county officials working to float more than $150 million in public debt.

County supervisors have been quietly engaging a developer – Griffin Structures Inc – to construct a new six-story, approximately 251,000 square foot building at the civic center through a development agreement.

While this plan has been developing since 2012, according to county documents, officials haven’t paid much attention to public engagement on the process at all beyond some limited briefings when the idea was initially unveiled earlier this year.

In the age of the Internet, I’m still wondering what we need these new fancy public counters for?

You can bet that later phases will include fancy digs for county supervisors but that curtain doesn’t get unveiled till way later in the taxpayers’ version of the Price is Right…when all of us are way too far down the rabbit hole to turn back.

County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery told me he refused county offers to move his offices into the building and questions the cost vs. what taxpayers pay now to house his staff.

Yet next Tuesday, supervisors are ready to launch taxpayers into a $300 million public debt (the total estimated to pay off a $150 million bond), as a first phase, in partnership with a private developer to build our public civic center, which we as taxpayers apparently then get to rent back.

Note that it was the board of supervisors’ failed oversight that bankrupted Orange County back in 1994 after a public treasurer floated a failed, billion-dollar scheme that taxpayers ultimately had to pick up. And note further that another board of supervisors triggered a different fiscal crisis involving more than $150 million in lost state vehicle license fees and property taxes when they refinanced the bankruptcy debt in 2006 – in exchange for a fancy headline that they were retiring debt early.

Now having a developer redo our civic center may be a novel idea.

Yet overdependence on a developer didn’t exactly work out for Irvine’s Great Park.

And after all the after-action audits were filed, what was missing from that project?

The public.

Renovating a public space as big as an 11-acre superblock in the midst of Santa Ana is a rare opportunity to engage in a collaborative, open process as a county government. One that brings in stakeholders – like employees, neighbors, vendors, the public – to help vision what kind of civic center makes sense for the next century.

What will we get?

  • Falpherst

    Thank you for writing this. Public input is truly critical in projects like these, and a failure to solicit repeated feedback at multiple project phases causes long term serious consequences. There are many ways to receive public input, at many different points in the process. This shouldn’t even be an issue. I’m shocked and saddened.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Secrecy = Corruption.

  • LFOldTimer

    Thanks for bringing this buried story to the surface, Norberto. You’re about the only media source that would do it.

    There’s no reason for new county buildings. Go around the country. Most government buildings are older than what the county has today. And they do just fine with routine maintenance and occasional renovations. But when you get to play with other people’s money, create a budget over $6 billion and reduce the public speaking time for citizens to a total of 3 minutes at public meetings that last 8 hours you sort of get an idea of how important public input and engagement is to these little tin-horn dictators.

    What wasn’t mentioned in the article is that the $150M expenditure (another bond that will never get paid off) is only for Phase I of the Civic Center project. By the time it’s over it’s been reported it will cost the taxpayers HALF A BILLION (ie. $500 MILLION) dollars. Yet when it comes to other projects, like animal care, those who masquerade as public servants complain that because the state takes so much money from them that the county can’t afford to pay for a $30 million dollar dog and cat shelter out of pocket – so they force the cities to pay for it, which is UNPRECEDENTED throughout the entire State of California. lol.

    These so-called leaders have no shame. And the elections are rigged with party vetted and pre-screened candidates running under the GOP banner – so regardless of who you select at the end of the day you get the same result. lol.

    Open up your pocketbooks, folks. You’re about to get hosed once again. They’ve taken away your voice and now they’re going to legally rob you of your nest egg so the government workers can all sit in nice cozy state-of-the-art offices with all the latest bells and whistles!!! ha.

  • kburgoyne

    Tsk, tsk, tsk, Santana. There you go thinking elected officials are supposed to do what’s right for the people and not cater to their own desires. Where DID you get that foolish notion? 🙂

    Do we know yet where the 10 foot bronze statues of the supervisors are going to go, or are they still fighting over who’ll get the most prominent locations? (I should probably state that’s a joke — at least I’m assuming — since I’m sure many readers might be unsure given other actions of the supervisors.)

  • David Zenger

    The deal with Griffin made no sense in 2012 and it makes no sense now. The financing was always leveraged off public debt and the taxpayers paying rent in the building they financed.

    The “developer” risks virtually nothing and gains big profits. Why? Check the Supervisors’ form 460s and look for the names Griffin Structures and Roger Torriero.

    P.S. Nice picture of what was left of Building 16, that was a perfectly re-usable structure. The demo cost and the construction value of that structure were completely wasted.