Santa Ana City Council Set to Vote Today on Controversial Apartments Proposal

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Lawn signs in Park Santiago neighborhood in Santa Ana.

Santa Ana City Council members today will decide the fate of a controversial apartment complex proposal, one that’s mobilized the opposition of nearby homeowners, who say the project is still too large to move forward despite much downscaling by the developer.

Today’s vote comes after more than two years of protests and uncertainty among city officials and residents surrounding the project, which prompted numerous revisions to it by developer Ryan Ogulnick and his team at Vineyards Development Corp.

Over the last two years, Ogulnick has shrunk the scale of the planned building at 2525 N. Main St. — located in the city’s Park Santiago neighborhood — from an early iteration of more than 500 proposed apartments to now 256 apartments. Ogulnick at community meetings and in previous statements to Voice of OC has said his company has never downsized a project to this extent before.

“The developer has made some concessions,” said City Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias in a phone interview. “The concerns residents have expressed, according to the information we received from staff, have been addressed.”

But residents in the nearby area remain worried the project’s density would still be one of the highest in the city next to single-family homes, on top of a current plan for 511 parking spaces — an average of two parking spaces per apartment.

Since Vineyards submitted its initial proposal in October 2017, the City Council has sent the project back to the Planning Commission, which in turn has rejected the project on three different occasions.

“It’s wrong in so many ways, this project.”said resident Dale Helvig, who helped organize the neighborhood’s opposition to the project.

Helvig’s group, known as the North Santa Ana Preservation Alliance, has mobilized the project’s critics to turn up to City Council meetings in large numbers. He said members of his group and residents from all over the city will be at tonight’s meeting.

Throughout the process, Ogulnick has attempted to appease homeowners with promises to spend over $1 million on improvements and maintenance of the neighborhood’s park, as well as hiring 24-hour security to patrol around the building and the entire Park Santiago area.

It remains to be seen how the Council will vote.

Today’s meeting will be the first one for newly-elected candidate Phil Bacerra, who previously ran for and lost the seat in the 2018 election cycle. That year saw around $320,000 in dark money spent in the election — part of which was in opposition of Bacerra.

Bacerra over the phone declined to say which way he was leaning on the project.

Voice of OC previously reported that the campaign committee that handled the dark money spent against Bacerra was managed by a Northern California resident with family connections to a Santa Ana lobbyist for the 2525 N. Main St. project.

Ogulnick has repeatedly denied any involvement with the dark money group.

Bacerra — who has since been elected to the seat in this year’s special election following the resignation of his former opponent Roman Reyna — has in the past said he wouldn’t have supported the project for its location in Park Santiago, while indicating there would be better sites for it in other parts of the city in this YouTube video from his campaign page.

He also in this year’s special election got the endorsement of Park Santiago resident and former council member Rob Richardson, as well as former council members Tom Lutz and Alberta Christy, who are all opposed to the project.

Richardson, Lutz and Christy — along with fellow former council members Dan Griset, Lisa Mills, and Brett Franklin — sent a letter this week to Mayor Miguel Pulido and the rest of the City Council urging them to strike down the apartments plan.

“In our experience, the number of development issues that have had this level of opposition and consistent advocacy over the past 30 years can be numbered on perhaps one hand,” the council members’ letter reads.

It goes on to describe the potential precedence the project’s approval could set: “Should you decide to approve an unwanted project after all that has transpired over two years … The larger consequence of putting the corrupting campaign money ahead of the quality of our neighborhoods is significant.”

It continues: “Who among you will stand up for Logan, Sandpointe, Santa Anita, Wilshire Square, French Park, Saddleback View, Memorial Park, Washington Square or any other neighborhood you could name when their turn comes to battle an unwanted development backed by corrupting campaign money from dark sources and out of town interests?”

Now that Bacerra’s filled the vacant Ward 4 seat, Helvig said “it removes the possibility of a tied vote and sending it back to the Planning Commission a fourth time.”

Helvig said the project — on top of its controversial nature — has “turned heavily into Santa Ana politics,” adding that the Council’s upcoming decision on the project could determine “how we’re going to deal with these situations going forward.”

“If it comes down to how much money a developer has to throw at issues,” he added, Santa Ana neighborhoods “are going to lose.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.