Santa Ana City Council members on the same night moved to appeal their original vote approving the much-contested apartments project at 2525 N. Main St., and authorized adding apartments to the controversial planned tower at One Broadway Plaza.
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Council members’ new 2525 vote comes after they initially approved the project back in January, despite much public opposition. After the council’s initial approval, residents organized a referendum movement across the city to turn a decision on the apartments over to voters, and earlier this month got a petition with 19,000 Santa Ana voters’ signatures qualified by the county for an election.
After news of the referendum petition qualifying, two council members — Vicente Sarmiento and David Penaloza — publicly flipped on the project, creating a five-member majority that could vote to rescind the council’s earlier approval of 2525 entirely.
On Tuesday night, City Council members at their virtual meeting did just that in a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Jose Solorio abstaining. He supported the project back in January, and continued to support it Tuesday night.
“The fact this item is on agenda tonight in this way is really due to dedication of the residents,” said Councilman Phil Bacerra, who opposed the project back in January, before the vote. “Let the efforts that have led us to this moment serve as a reminder that the power in Santa Ana is not in developer money, but in the power of the people.”
Sarmiento before the vote attributed much of his decision to the amount of time he’s spent at home during the coronavirus emergency — “you’re able to reflect and sit back and consider things in detail.” He’s also a contender for the mayoral race this year, and will face Solorio and Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, who supported the project in January but voted to repeal her support of it Tuesday.
“It wasn’t easy,” Sarmiento added. “This process wasn’t a simple one, but I think we’re at a moment where we can recapture this conversation about that site, and brings us to another phase where we talk about what it can be.”
The new ordinance repealing council members’ earlier vote would need to come back for a second reading at their next meeting on May 5. Between then and now, a legal challenge to the referendum movement’s signature-gathering process remains.
Specifically, Ogulnick is challenging whether the City Clerk’s office gave the referendum team an undue extension to gather signatures since the deadline to do so ended on a weekend, among other questions. City staff have defended the integrity of the petition.
City Attorney Sonia Carvahlo on Tuesday told the council she consulted an outside legal opinion on the referendum petition, which she said affirmed the city was in the right.
Still, Solorio said “there are still legal questions about the petition” before announcing his intention to abstain from the vote, which prompted challenges from many of his council colleagues.
“I would just ask that we have every member take a vote on the motion,” Bacerra said, questioning whether Solorio had a legitimate legal reason to abstain.
Asked by Mayor Miguel Pulido to clarify why he was abstaining, Solorio said “I already made my comment.”
Iglesias said her hope was that the energy from the community against 2525, which would have sat near the Park Santiago neighborhood, could be applied the same way to controversial projects all over the city.
Dale Helvig, a Park Santiago resident and one of the lead organizers challenging Ogulnick’s project, obliged.
Later in the meeting, he called in during public comments with concerns about a proposal by developer Mike Harrah to add up to 415 apartments to his 37-story tower at One Broadway Plaza, which has been in the planning stages for more than a decade and would sit around neighborhoods like French Court, Willard, Logan, Lacy, Downtown, and French Park.
The Council approved Harrah’s proposal in a 6-1 vote, with Iglesias opposed.
Helvig during public comment said with Harrah’s project, “The affordable housing issue has bounced back and forth …it’s gone from it will be included to it will not be included.”
“It’s advantageous for the developer to not include affordable housing in the project,” Helvig added, questioning whether the $4 million fee Harrah agreed to pay instead of adding affordable housing to his project would be enough to build more than a few affordable housing units in another part of the city.
Before voting “No,” Iglesias — alongside Penaloza — questioned whether the demand for virtual government meetings and limited public interactions allowed for adequate public input on the project.
With a lot of “unanswered questions,” Iglesias said the project is “not at the point where the community is being served well.” Her motion to delay a vote on Harrah’s proposal died for lack of support on the council.
“It’s been almost 20 years that this has been in the making…what’s a few more months to get the community input?” she said.
Harrah already has the entitlements to build the tower, but said adding market-rate apartments to it would reduce the tower’s traffic impacts to the surrounding neighborhood while bringing more residents and sales tax to the city.
Still, the city says the tower would generate thousands of new daily vehicle trips in the area.
Harrah has committed to paying $300,000 for every neighborhood the city identified as being impacted by the traffic, which at first didn’t include the Logan neighborhood but was later added.
Santa Ana Planning Director Minh Thai said a “nominal” portion of that money would fund traffic studies to determine how best to redirect and alleviate traffic impacts to the surrounding neighborhoods. The rest would be used to pay for the construction of those traffic calming measures, like signs.
“I don’t think a study is necessary – the traffic is going to be there,” Penaloza said, asking whether Harrah could commit that night to traffic calming measures instead of waiting on a study “of something we already know is happening today.”
“That’s obvious that that’s going to happen,” he said.
Harrah defended the need for a study, arguing it would be crucial to understanding where best to place traffic calming measures on the streets.
“It could be done with stop signs, it could be done with signals, roundabouts, one-way streets,” he said, adding the study would help determine that.
“We are very concerned for the neighborhoods,” he added. “I always have been, and I always will be.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.