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A promised Santa Ana community center in a low-income neighborhood took a major step toward construction this month when the City Council approved a reimbursement agreement to fund the center.

The 10,000 square-foot, two-story facility is to be built at Garfield Elementary School, which is near a mixed-use housing development known as the Station District. A first-floor multi-purpose room would be accessible to the general public during afterschool hours, while the second floor would be “available at all times,” a city staff report states.

If the center is built, the city will have at least partially delivered on a promise to an activists’ coalition known as Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Government (SACReD) that some members had feared wouldn’t be kept.

Their anxiety stems from failed negotiations to hammer out a community benefits agreement for the Station District development. That contract would have bound the developer and the city into a legally enforceable promise to develop park space, affordable housing and the community center.

Ana Urzua, a community organizer for SACReD, is cautiously optimistic about the council decision. “Getting involved in absence of a community agreement is good faith,” she said.

Urzua also said, however, that without a community benefits agreement, the group must remain vigilant to ensure that the city delivers on promised public benefits.

“If they want benefits to remain for the community, they should put it into an enforceable agreement,” Urzua said. “Hopefully, the city will be willing to do so in the future.”

The reimbursement agreement provides Santa Ana Unified School District with $2.8 million in federal funds to build the center. City officials have also used such joint-use agreements to provide more open space in a city that is known as park-poor.

Councilman David Benavides hailed the joint-use agreement as the product of groups like SACReD challenging city government to find creative ways to provide public amenities in a dense city with little space for such improvements.

“It’s the community helping us think outside the box and pushing us along,” Benavides said.

Funds to build the center will come from the federal Community Development Block Grant program, which for decades has funded neighborhood improvements across the country.

The school district’s education board is scheduled to consider the reimbursement agreement at its Tuesday meeting, according to the staff report, and construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2013.

— BRENDAN WILES

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