Larry Mantle brought his AirTalk show to Santa Ana for a debate on gentrification in the downtown. From left: Larry Mantle, council members Carlos Bustamante and Michele Martinez, Executive Director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development Eric Altman, and downtown dentist Arturo Lomeli. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 | Los Angeles public radio personality Larry Mantle brought his AirTalk show to Santa Ana on Monday to talk about the battle between the city and many of its residents over the planned facelift of Santa Ana’s downtown.

Mantle and his guests got an earful from dozens of boisterous residents who attended the taping at Libreria Martinez on Broadway in the Artists Village. Most of those in the audience were residents and merchants in the downtown who feel the redevelopment is gentrifying the area and could end up squeezing them out.

Officials, including Council members Michele Martinez and Carlos Bustamante, were on hand to defend the redevelopment, saying it is simply a reflection of Santa Ana’s changing demographics. Specifically, they said, the children of Latino immigrants, who make up much of the city’s population, are demanding living and shopping environments that appeal to them.

AirTalk is a public affairs talk show that airs daily on Los Angeles-based KPCC.

Carolina Sarmiento — a representative of the Latino organization El Centro Cultural de Mexico — and Eric Altman, executive director of the nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development – argued for having more residents participate in the planning process.

Also present on the panel during the first half of the show was Arturo Lomeli, a dentist whose office is near the heavily Latino 4th Street. Lomeli argued that what the area needed was more infrastructure — like lighting and restrooms — to compete with swankier shopping destinations.

The debate displayed hints of the class warfare that is at the heart of this downtown debate, and most every battle areas that are gentrifying.

Sarmiento said that the displaced always end up being “poor people” and “brown people.” Bustamante, meanwhile, indicated that resistance to redevelopment of the downtown core amounts to discrimination against rich people.

“Who are they trying to keep out?” Bustamante asked a few times throughout the show.

“I really think that it’s [Santa Ana] experiencing a rebirth, a renaissance,” Bustamante said.

Sarmiento and Altman didn’t resist the development outright, but said the community’s stakeholders weren’t being heard.

“There maybe winners and losers, but the best way to go about this is to make sure all voices are heard,” Altman said.

Much of the debate surrounded a community benefits agreement that was originally proposed for the Station District housing project near downtown, but was never ratified.

The agreement would have called for, among other things, park space, a community center and affordable housing. Several community meetings were held to put the agreement together. However, City Council approved the project in a 4-0 vote without the agreement.

In one interesting exchange between Bustamante and Mantle over the agreement, Bustamante said that those types of agreements are usually between the developer and the community, to which Mantle replied, “but you’re representing the community.”

Bustamante then made a distinction that drew another round of scoffs from the audience — “we represent the city,” Bustamante said. “And we have to limit our exposure.”

Mantle didn’t accept that defense without question –“So you’re saying a city has no legal ability to put demands on a developer because that leaves the city vulnerable?” Is that what you’re saying?” He said.

Bustamante then pointed out that all the requests made in the benefits agreement — including park space, affordable housing and a community center — were going to be met, just not through such an agreement. “Same effect, different vehicle,” Bustamante said.

Sarmiento said the community has no faith in their needs being met without an agreement.

“We have suffered different development agreements with the Station District that haven’t been kept,” Sarmiento said. “There’s no way for the community to hold anyone accountable.”

The show was a hit among the audience members, but there were still complaints that too much time was given to council members who evaded questions from residents.

“There wasn’t enough public input,” said Fina Chaves, owner of a parking lot at the corner of 3rd and Bush streets. “They let the council people talk too much.”

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