Santa Ana residents are in uproar over the City Council’s plan to tear down a handball court at the west-end Santa Anita Park.
It’s part of an overall effort to renovate the recreational area, which has limited space.
But the plan faces objections from those who say that handball courts are crucial to public safety and community health in the city.
Handball courts have become a flashpoint of public debate in recent months, between those who see the spaces as enabling illicit activity and those who see them as a tool to keep young people out of trouble.
City Council members defended the removal plans at their meeting Tuesday, where the council unanimously voted to request nearly $178,000 in state money to finance parts of the park renovation project before the groundwork can be done.
Staff said the plan addresses concerns from the park’s surrounding communities and that they conducted public outreach before moving ahead.
Parks and Recreation Director Lisa Rudloff pointed to one November community meeting, where she said around “7 to 10” people showed up and gave input.
That detail prompted questions from Councilwoman Jessie Lopez.
“I don’t know how representative that is of the entire neighborhood, and what we’re hearing (now) is that people aren’t ready to part with the court that is there,” Lopez said, suggesting staff conduct more community outreach to the area before moving ahead with the project.
Performing additional community outreach around the park renovation was an idea multiple council members voiced interest in that night.
Though “the handball court is not utilized” in the park, Rudloff said during the meeting, adding “I don’t have anything against handball,” but that the basketball court, for example, was being expanded “because it’s popular there.”
Residents and handball court advocates, who either spoke publicly at Tuesday’s meeting or wrote letters to the council, disagreed.
Among them was Santa Ana Unified School District Board Member Carolyn Torres, who said the sport carries a special historical and cultural significance in the city.
“Just as we honor historical buildings, these courts could be honored 50 to 60 years from now, but only if they exist,” she said.
One letter to the city from resident Gilbert Sanchez noted the sport’s popularity among Latinos, a majority of Santa Ana’s residents.
Torres also pointed to the city’s decision last year to tear down a set of handball courts at Chepa’s Park near the Logan neighborhood — a decision protested by locals and handball enthusiasts, but supported by members of the nearby Homeowners Association who said the area became a hotspot for undesirable activity.
City officials, in defending renovation plans for Santa Anita Park, similarly stated they’d been hearing complaints that the court was attracting all types of activity other than actual handball uses.
Torres said the handball courts aren’t “enabling” the activity that’s been complained about, such as homeless camping, gang presence or drug use: “Those are structural or economic issues.”
In a letter to the city, west-end resident Marlha Sanchez said she and her family would see the courts being used “every time” they went to the park.
Rudloff and Councilman Phil Bacerra pointed to the city’s ongoing efforts to establish a citywide master plan for all parks in town as another way for residents to voice their opinions on the handball courts issue, through what they said would be a number of community meetings and forums with opportunities for direct public engagement.
“This parks master plan will be an upcoming opportunity for folks to really engage us as to how they want to see their parks designed going forward,” Bacerra said.
Mayor Vicente Sarmiento and Councilman David Penaloza said the recent controversy over handball courts in the city both fuels a need for more cultural awareness and a discussion about opening up school yards in the city to meet more open space demand.
Sarmiento also posed the possibility of designing the basketball court in a way where it could double as a handball court.
Meanwhile, the main scope of the park renovation project has been mapped out. Aside from the removal of the handball court and expansion of the basketball court from a half-court to full court, the parking lot will also be expanded.
The project’s estimated to cost more than $1 million, with a fraction coming from grant money and cannabis shop taxes.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.