Indigenous activists and community members are calling on the San Juan Capistrano City Council to move forward on the development of a cultural park they say was promised to them by the city, after the plan to create an open-air park to honor one of the area’s original villages, Putuidem, was suspended in April.
On Tuesday, about 20 people rallied on the intersection of Paseo Adelanto and Del Obispo Street, less than half a mile away from city hall. Some banged on hand drums, while others held up signs to passing cars reading, “Build Putuidem Park” and “Honor Indigenous People of Orange.”
“What we want the city council to do is keep their word. They’ve already agreed to the preservation of the land, and they keep taking everyone in circles.” Michelle Castillo, a 48-year-old Huntington Beach resident said during the rally.
The city’s Northwest Open Space property holds what remains of Putuidem, an American Indian village and one of the last remaining indigenous sites in the city. The land is considered sacred by the Acjachemen and Juaneño people who live in San Juan Capistrano today.
San Juan Capistrano City Manager Ben Siegel said over email Wednesday that the city has supported the Northwest Open Space Community Park Project, alternatively known as the Putuidem Cultural Village, in the past.
“The City Council has repeatedly expressed support for the [Northwest Open Space] park project. With that in mind, there are legitimate questions regarding the zoning designation for the property.” Siegel said. “City Council voted to defer action on the park project until the public had an opportunity to provide input on preferred uses for the overall [Northwest Open Space] property — not just the park site.”
Since the project’s suspension, the city held two public workshops and conducted a survey on its website.
Next month, during San Juan Capistrano’s Sept. 17 city council meeting, the public will hear the data gathered from the workshops and online survey.
Siegel said he does not anticipate any staff recommendation on what to do with the site until council members have a chance to consider the community input.
But during this week’s council meeting, several public commenters urged council members to move forward with plans to create the Putuidem Cultural Park and keep the undeveloped land open to the public.
“We’ve gone through all these councils, and all these meetings, and we’re told the money [to create the park] is there. We’ve seen it on paper. We believed you [when you said] that the money was there, and so what we’re asking you now is to move forward with it.” Matias Belardes, a 50-year-old resident of San Juan Capistrano said during public comments.
“Enough talk, enough workshops and survey monkeys…It’s time to move forward.” Belardes said.
The proposed cultural park is located west of Interstate 5 and Camino Capistrano, and was purchased by the city using Measure D Open Space bonds from 1992 through 1995. In 2017, the bonds were paid and the city began to explore the possibility of leasing about 22.5 acres of the site for limited use, according to a staff report dated March 5. The entire Northwest Open Space is 40.5 acres.
Since opening the site up to proposals, the city entered into an exclusive negotiation agreement with Red Tail Acquisitions, a real estate firm that proposed building a “glamping” site with airstreams and safari tents on the Northwest Open Space. The proposed project includes equestrian amenities, trails, soccer fields and a Native American historical tribute site.
Siegel said the leasing of a portion of the open space is on hold until council gives direction. He also said the potential benefits of leasing out include creating a cash stream to pay for the upkeep of existing trails on the site, as well as planned public sites, such as the Putuidem Village.
“There’s one piece of open space left, and that was promised for this cultural park. Now, [city council is] backing down on this promise they’ve made numerous times,” said Dina Gilio Whitaker, a professor in American Indian Studies at Cal State San Marcos during the rally. “They [need] to stick with the original plan, and not put in some kind of camping operation.”
Castillo said that San Juan Capistrano residents have made it clear to elected officials that they want to preserve the land, and not build over it.
“There are so many people who don’t know what’s going on, and we’re hoping to bring attention to not only the issue, but to the people they voted for,” Castillo said.
If council members decide to move forward with Putuidem Cultural Village, the project is expected to cost $2 million and will be paid for with Measure Y Open Space bonds, Community Facilities District Bonds, and Park and Recreation Developer Impact Fees, according to a staff report dated April 16.
Steven Romero, a 56-year-old resident of San Juan Capistrano, stressed the importance of preserving the city’s natural open spaces to the council.
“[If] you grew up here, you played in the dirt. There wasn’t anything else. You sat on the hills, you rode your bike down the creek,” Romero said during public comments. “I’d like a little bit of that left so that I might be able to give that to my grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and on, and on, and on.”
Miranda Andrade is a Voice of OC reporting intern and can be reached at [email protected].