It’s a bold idea: build Orange County’s first light rail system in decades, connecting the Santa Ana train station with the city’s downtown and one of the county’s busiest streets, Harbor Blvd.
The streetcar, supporters say, would bring a surge of new customers to downtown and spur investment in the area.
That vision, however, is being met with growing worries from downtown business owners – many of whom now oppose the main proposed route and say the city needs to do more to involve them in the process.
In recent weeks, more than 200 local residents and business owners have signed a petition against the city’s “preferred option” of having the rail line travel on Fourth Street in downtown, according to people involved in the signature gathering.
Among those listed in opposition are more than 70 local businesses, including restaurants, bridal shops, travel agencies, jewelry stores, beauty salons and mobile phone shops along the Fourth Street area.
Concerns include construction impacts on their business, not being contacted as part of outreach efforts, as well as the potential removal of street parking on Fourth Street.
Many of the shop owners say they want the streetcar to run down Fifth Street instead.
“The fact that 200 people got engaged in a letter of opposition means that there’s something wrong with the outreach,” said Madeleine Spencer, president of the Santa Ana Community and Business Alliance, who gathered many of the signatures.
City officials, meanwhile, say they’ve conducted an extensive outreach campaign that went above and beyond the legal requirements.
“The city did do an extensive outreach and definitely cares about the community and residents. And all of the comments that are being made are taken seriously,” said Santa Ana city spokeswoman Tanya Lyon.
Lyon said the city sent about 3,800 postcards to all properties within 500 feet of the proposed project, including property owners and tenants, along with notices on the city website and news releases to neighborhood leaders.
About 100 people came to the three June meetings to give feedback on the project’s environmental impact report, Lyon said.
Interim Public Works Director William Galvez said the city can’t reply to the questions or concerns from the meeting until October or November because of the environmental review process.
“We’re following those processes because in the end when we have our documents certified we’d like for that document to be good enough for a project to actually occur,” said Galvez.
“We have engaged agencies, businesses and property owners” for about a three-year period, he added.
If businesses adjacent to the proposed streetcar line weren’t contacted, “then we need to check our records to see if we in fact left anyone out,” said Galvez.
Mayor Miguel Pulido and the rest of the City Council didn’t return messages through Lyon seeking comment.
Spencer said a majority of shop owners along Fourth Street were not informed by the city about recent outreach meetings for the project.
Yet the city had no problem citing them for code violations during a recent Cinco de Mayo event, Spencer wrote in a cover letter for the petition.
This shows that city officials have “every ability to inform businesses of violations yet seem to have little ability to inform them of processes that may well affect their livelihood for years to come,” she added.
Lyon said over the weekend that she didn’t know if the city had someone walk the route to conduct in-person outreach to shopkeepers and residents next to the proposed route.
City officials say the feedback they’ve received on the streetcar has been mostly positive.
One those supporters is Ryan Chase, a real estate developer who heads up Downtown, Inc.
“I think the project’s a no-brainer,” said Chase, pointing to new investment and customers expected to be brought the downtown area.
The city is competing for federal grants, he said, adding to the urgency of getting the streetcar approved.
“I think we need to find a way to say yes” and move forward, said Chase.
Having the streetcar run down Fourth Street has an advantage, he added, because it features better architecture, historic buildings and more street activity than Fifth Street.
"At the end of the day the streetcar will be bringing a lot of people and attention to the area, and [Fourth Street] would be best to showcase the heart of the Downtown rather than a secondary street," said Chase.
Pete Katz, an active Santa Ana resident who serves on the Com-Link board, disagreed with opponents regarding the outreach.
“I think there was plenty of public outreach and there [were] more opportunities in every part of [the day] for people to get out there and voice their opinion every step of the way over the last three years,” said Katz.
“People had the opportunity to show up, they just didn’t bother.”
Galvez, meanwhile, said construction would not be very disruptive, with a two or three block section being worked on at a time for two or three weeks each.
For those who feel they’ve been left out of the process, he encouraged them to call the city and ask to be included in the mailing list.
“We’d be more than happy to add them and keep them engaged,” said Galvez.
Santa Ana council members plan to discuss the project at their Aug. 5 meeting, where they’re slated to decide on whether to approve the preferred route.
The streetcar project is slated to ultimately be overseen by the Orange County Transportation Authority, where a board member said he was surprised to learn of the opposition.
OCTA Director John Moorlach, who is also a county supervisor, said Mayor Pulido has been telling board members that “everyone’s supportive of the streetcar.”
“Then I get this email from [Spencer] saying ‘we’re opposed and I’ve got 500 people who are opposed,” said Moorlach, who opposes the streetcar.
One aspect of the project that activists want more clarity about is the future development plans for Willowick Golf Course.
Both proposed streetcar routes would travel directly between between the golf course and the city’s Santa Anita neighborhood, likely causing a significant boost to the value of the land if developed.
The course has been the subject of development discussions for years.
At one point, Mayor Pulido was arranging negotiations with the Chivas USA soccer team to build a stadium on the land.
And last year, the city of Garden Grove, which owns Willowick, considered selling the course to McWhinney Enterprises, the developers of an upcoming water park hotel in the city.
“The value of the Willowick Golf Course…for a medium density mixed-use development is estimated to be $50 million,” Garden Grove City Manager Matt Fertal wrote in an email to a different developer.
Santa Ana's current website for the streetcar also marks the land as “Future Development Willowick Golf Course.”
Regarding Willowick, Moorlach said it “is likely the case” that “there something going on behind the scenes that we’re not aware of.”
“It would not be a shock if there was something going on and this were a motivating factor” behind the proposed route, he added.
Galvez said he was unaware of any specific development discussions surrounding the property.
Ultimately, Spencer said, the community wants to be part of an inclusive engagement around Santa Ana’s transit and development vision.
“I cannot figure out why they don’t shift over to this more modern way of working. Because people are doing it all over successfully,” said Spencer, pointing to engagement efforts in cities like San Antonio, Texas.
City leaders can take a big step forward, she added, by organizing a town hall meeting about the project.
“Together, we actually come up with the best idea for everyone.”