Tennis court at the Cabrillo Tennis Center (left), and the site of a planned Latino cultural center at the corner of 4th and French streets. (Photo credit: Nick Gerda)

Friday, April 22, 2011 | A tennis center in Santa Ana won’t be getting two new clay courts, as Santa Ana City Council decided Monday that money earmarked for the improvements will instead go toward a downtown cultural plaza and a police helicopter program.

The tennis courts, which Mayor Miguel Pulido had wanted at the Cabrillo Tennis Center, were supposed to be built with $510,000 in funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

“The tennis courts are nice, but it’s not something the vast majority of the population uses to put that kind of money into it,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero.

While Pulido voted with the rest of council to move money away from the tennis center, it’s no secret that he wanted to see the additional courts.

The mayor cites the building of the first clay court at the tennis center as an accomplishment of his. And he voted for the redirection of the funds only on the condition that City Council would be able to reallocate the money if it ends up not being spent on the helicopter program.

As things stand now, $144,000 of the $510,000 will go to the cultural center and the rest would fund the helicopter program as part of a partnership with other local police agencies.

The decision to develop the cultural plaza comes as many property and business owners in the area have complained loudly about what they see as an effort to gentrify the downtown area and push out Latino businesses.

The gentrification issue has been the subject of several community meetings as well as a recent forum in Santa Anna hosted by Los Angeles public radio host Larry Mantle. Many landowners and some council members argue that the downtown needs to broaden its appeal to a younger, more affluent demographic.

More fuel was added to the fire last week when a Voice of OC story revealed that Irving Chase — the largest landlord in the area adjacent to the plaza — has been denying the renewals of leases to merchants who don’t restock their stores with merchandise that would attract younger, and more hip, customers.

Council members at Monday’s meeting clarified their positions on the gentrification issue — making sure to emphasize their commitment to maintaining the area’s Latino identity.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said that the plaza will help maintain that identity, and Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez criticized the practice of forcing merchants to change the way they do business.

“I think that’s an ideal location for one [cultural plaza] because that downtown has always been an historic downtown, it’s always been an authentic and genuine and original downtown, but it’s been a Latino downtown,” Sarmiento said.

Alvarez said that her parents were immigrants who opened a business that helped put her and her sisters through college. She said they did it by doing business that they were good at, and she criticized the idea that merchants need to be told what to sell.

“Nobody came in there and told them, instead of selling tortas, sell hotdogs,” Alvarez said.

Pulido, during discussion about the plaza, was lukewarm to the idea of declaring a Latino identity. He cautioned against making the city so Latino that it is uninviting to non-Latinos.

“Yes I think it’s important and its good to have a Latino theme, but I want to make very very certain that that doesn’t become a you’re not welcome unless you’re Hispanic theme,” Pulido said.

Sarmiento responded that most big cities respect their cultural roots, and that cultural districts aren’t seen as unwelcoming to different ethnicities.

“It really is the identity of the city, that doesn’t mean that Germans aren’t welcome or Irish aren’t welcome, or if you go into Chinatown you have to be Chinese, that’s not it,” Sarmiento said.

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