Santana: Public Spaces Should Reflect The Public That Pays For Them

Norberto Santana Jr.

Demolition of Building 16 at county civic center

Orange County supervisors are poised to soon begin creation of one of Orange County’s grandest civic spaces.

Yet almost no one knows anything about it.

It’s an unfortunate par for the course for our current board of supervisors, which has a private penchant for secrecy and a very public distaste for public comment.

Yet it’s the grand idea of a robust public counter that fuels the first phase of development of an 11-acre “superblock” in downtown Santa Ana – one that features county officials working to float more than $150 million in public debt.

County supervisors have been quietly engaging a developer – Griffin Structures Inc – to construct a new six-story, approximately 251,000 square foot building at the civic center through a development agreement.

While this plan has been developing since 2012, according to county documents, officials haven’t paid much attention to public engagement on the process at all beyond some limited briefings when the idea was initially unveiled earlier this year.

In the age of the Internet, I’m still wondering what we need these new fancy public counters for?

You can bet that later phases will include fancy digs for county supervisors but that curtain doesn’t get unveiled till way later in the taxpayers’ version of the Price is Right…when all of us are way too far down the rabbit hole to turn back.

County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery told me he refused county offers to move his offices into the building and questions the cost vs. what taxpayers pay now to house his staff.

Yet next Tuesday, supervisors are ready to launch taxpayers into a $300 million public debt (the total estimated to pay off a $150 million bond), as a first phase, in partnership with a private developer to build our public civic center, which we as taxpayers apparently then get to rent back.

Note that it was the board of supervisors’ failed oversight that bankrupted Orange County back in 1994 after a public treasurer floated a failed, billion-dollar scheme that taxpayers ultimately had to pick up. And note further that another board of supervisors triggered a different fiscal crisis involving more than $150 million in lost state vehicle license fees and property taxes when they refinanced the bankruptcy debt in 2006 – in exchange for a fancy headline that they were retiring debt early.

Now having a developer redo our civic center may be a novel idea.

Yet overdependence on a developer didn’t exactly work out for Irvine’s Great Park.

And after all the after-action audits were filed, what was missing from that project?

The public.

Renovating a public space as big as an 11-acre superblock in the midst of Santa Ana is a rare opportunity to engage in a collaborative, open process as a county government. One that brings in stakeholders – like employees, neighbors, vendors, the public – to help vision what kind of civic center makes sense for the next century.

What will we get?