What was supposed to be a routine second City Council vote on a high-end apartment development in Santa Ana turned into a last-minute haggling session Monday evening, as council members extracted a promise from the developer to submit designs for a high-rise tower at the site before giving final approval to the project.
The 271-unit apartment project, known as The Met at South Coast, is to be built on a 3.1-acre site at MacArthur Place, an affluent southeastern corner of the city. A portion of the site — about three-quarters of an acre — is being reserved for the promised tower.
Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilmen Vincent Sarmiento and Carlos Bustamante raised concerns about the project, which was first voted on last month, with Sarmiento noting that the area was supposed to elevate the city skyline.
A previous project approved for the site, Geneva Commons, included an 18-story tower, but it hasn't been built.
“We're being asked to divert from that and do something on a smaller scale,” Sarmiento said. “In essence, to build some apartments. We have a lot of apartments.”
After some back-and-forth negotiating in public session, Pulido called for a recess to meet privately with with the development partners and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho. The meeting involved Pulido, Sarmiento, Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez and city staff, according to developer Bob Bisno.
Council members then approved the development on the condition that the site may not be transferred to another owner for two years. Council members couldn't require that the developer, Vineyards Development Corp., build a high-rise without violating state law, Bisno said in an interview with reporters after the meeting.
Nonetheless, Bisno made a nonbinding promise to submit to city staff designs for a tower that is at least 12 stories tall. He made a point of saying that promising to submit designs for a tower and actually building one are two different things.
Bisno's main worry is that the soft real estate market might make financing the project difficult. Two 25-story residential towers known as the Essex Skyline at MacArthur Place were built at a loss of $50 million, he said.
“We may not have the perfect answer,” he said.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez is a strong proponent of the project because it would create 700 union jobs, but she said developing high-rise towers isn't economically viable.
Martinez went on to blame Pulido for creating the last-minute issues, something he often does when he is not in the majority on a decision. And she again indicated that Pulido no longer controls the council like he used to.
“He [Pulido] created chaos — unnecessary chaos — because he couldn't get what he wanted,” Martinez said in an interview Tuesday morning. “Everybody's always second-guessing, believing certain people have the power. It's a new day here.”
City planning commissioners and staff had a number of objections to the project, and Planning Director Jay Trevino said at a previous meeting he would have recommended against the project only three months ago. Among other issues, city officials had objected to the unit mix — which they believed included too many one-bedroom units — and the amount of open space, which as originally proposed was below requirements in the city code.
The Santa Ana Planning Commission with one commissioner absent had split 3-3 on the project in February.
Bisno has since partially allayed concerns by reducing the number of units, including additional open space and changing the unit mix to include more two- and three-bedroom units, according to a staff report. A swimming pool was enlarged, and a business center was added, city officials said.