A push by residents to overturn a much-contested apartments project, and a developer’s wish to make changes to a tower that’s been in development for more than a decade, means Santa Ana officials will revisit two of the city’s most controversial projects at the same meeting tonight.

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City Council members will meet virtually to decide whether or not to let developer Mike Harrah add apartments to his 37-story tower at One Broadway Plaza. The project’s been in the planning stages for at least 15 years, but has progressed little over that time.

After that, council members will also decide whether to set an election for the controversial 2525 N. Main St. apartments, after residents opposed to the project — mainly in the project’s surrounding Park Santiago neighborhood — gathered signatures on a petition to turn a decision on the project over to voters, and got that petition qualified by county elections officials. 

The City Council could either set an election date for the referendum, or rescind its original 4-3 Council vote from January — which approved the project — entirely.

Recently, two Santa Ana council members who originally supported the project announced they would oppose it this time around, citing the success of the referendum team challenging the apartments.

Council members Vicente Sarmiento and David Penaloza, after announcing their newfound opposition to the project over social media this month, would consolidate a five-member council majority against the project, possibly ending it for good. 

Council members Phil Bacerra, Juan Villegas and Mayor Miguel Pulido are already opposed to the project.

Both Sarmiento, who’s running for mayor this year against 2525 supporters Jose Solorio and Ceci Iglesias, and Penaloza said they intend to rescind their votes for the project.

“While I genuinely believe the applicant acted in good faith during the entitlement process, and despite his best efforts to reduce the scale and number of residential units in his development plans, it has become painfully clear that the project will simply not work at that location,” Sarmiento said in his April 10 Facebook post.

Three hours later, Penaloza wrote on Facebook: “After much deep reflection, and communication with community leaders, and the inspiration of 19,000 voices, I have decided to rescind my vote in support of 2525 N. Main.”

“This wasn’t a decision I made lightly, but it is the right one,” he added.

In a phone interview, Penaloza called the referendum “eye-opening.”

The developer, Ryan Ogulnick, has said his legal challenge to the referendum team’s signature-gathering time frame will continue, but also said he’d be willing to accept other visions for the six-acre site that he owns, such as park space or an extension of the surrounding museum district. 

Ogulnick’s project became the heart of a debate over the role of developers in Santa Ana politics – specifically, Councilman Juan Villegas in November last year publicly alleged Ogulnick was behind more than $320,000 in illegal dark money that was spent in 2018 partly attacking then-council candidate Bacerra and supporting his opponent, Roman Reyna, who won the seat that year but resigned in 2019 facing a civil trial over residency fraud charges. 

Ogulnick has repeatedly denied the dark money allegations.

Coincidentally, the last project to go through a referendum effort was the One Broadway Plaza tower, which was approved by voters in 2005 but is once again on the agenda tonight because the developer, Mike Harrah, wants to add apartments to it.

Harrah already has the entitlements to build the tower, which would stand at 37 stories and sit near six neighborhoods: French Court, Willard, Logan, Lacy, Downtown, and French Park. 

But his proposal, to add up to 415 apartments to the building, needs authorization by the Council to approve a modification to the original, years-old study on the project’s environmental impacts, as well as a zoning change and general plan amendment.

Critics, mostly nearby homeowners, want new studies done on the project, as well as updated plans for calming traffic in the area, which they say adding apartments would worsen. 

Harrah and the city say adding apartments to the building would lessen traffic, contingent on whether tenants in the building also work in the same building’s office spaces, and that adding apartments to the building would mean more residents making purchases in Santa Ana.

Harrah would also be paying $300,000 for every neighborhood the city identified as being impacted by the traffic.

Still, the city says the building would generate around 3,660 daily vehicle trips in the area. 

The project has already been approved in a recommendation by the Planning Commission, where five commissioners at an April 2 meeting voted “Yes” and one other, Thai Viet Phan, abstained.

Harrah at a March 30 meeting told commissioners the tower is getting built one way or another, but said he sees the proposed adjustments to his project as a way to “raise the bar” and measure up to what other cities are doing with mixed use projects, pointing to areas like the LA Live center in downtown Los Angeles.

“This is the absolute wrong time to allow for a 37 story building to be approved in the heart of the city,” said resident Steven Adler in a public comment letter to the Planning Commission at their April 1 meeting, which was also held virtually in light of the ongoing coronavirus emergency.

“The 37-story size of the proposed project is simply far too large for that location,” he said in the letter, adding “the city’s street infrastructure can NOT be improved enough to adequately handle the additional traffic generated.”

The traffic on Broadway would be “nothing short of horrific,” reads a letter to commissioners from resident Pamela Angell.

“Here again, Santa Ana is on track to be the most dense city in the state. That is not a good thing to crowd as many people as possible in a small space. Look at what we are going through with this COVID-19 crisis. Imagine having to isolate/quarantine a 37 story building,” her letter added.

But the project also has some support among groups like the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and building and trade unions. 

Dave Elliot, the Chamber of Commerce’s president, in a letter to the Planning Commission called it “vital for the wellbeing of our city to support projects that will bring in revenue, enhance the City’s image, bring more residents to the downtown area and promote mixed use in our developments.” 

“As I have seen in surrounding cities, mix use projects are the trend to bring life back to the downtown cities. We have seen it in Los Angeles, San Diego and currently our neighbors in Anaheim. Santa Ana should embrace this opportunity,” his letter added.

Santa Ana does need “some” new mixed-use developments “to attract people and revive downtown,” Adler admitted in his letter. But he said approving this project would prove “a recipe for financial disaster for the city.”

Public comments specifically made for the 2525 referendum can be submitted by email only to eComment@santa-ana.org

Public comments can be called in for the One Broadway Plaza project because it’s a public hearing. Comments can be made by dialing (669) 900-9128 and the meeting identification number, 315 965 149, followed by the # symbol.

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

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