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After six years and multiple delays, Buena Park officials have refused to grant developers more time to finally build a long-stagnant boutique hotel project along Beach Boulevard.
It’s a decision that could set the stage for the city to buy the property back, which would make it public land.
Meanwhile, residents and interest groups say Buena Park’s move only captures an ongoing, wider debate in Orange County over just what lengths local officials will go to prioritize public land, or potentially public land, for money making purposes — rather than community benefit.
That debate has played out in cities like Anaheim and Garden Grove, where consequential public land-sale processes in each city have brought controversy over what many claim is an effort to shut residents who would be directly impacted out of the discussions.
“Do elected officials want to allow developers who can’t meet deadline commitments on time to build a mediocre project their city doesn’t really need?” said Danielle Wilson, a research analyst at local labor union Unite HERE Local 11, who continued:
“Or do they want to use that land for a project that would actually produce meaningful community benefits?”
The Buena Park City Council on Tuesday voted to put the developers of the planned Hotel Stanford project in default on their agreement with the city, stating the developers failed to meet all their obligations and commitments to the project.
Councilwoman Sunny Park, who sided with the project, was the lone dissenting vote.
It came after much debate among some on the City Council who publicly weighed giving the project more time.
As part of the direction, city staff will come back with an official ordinance finalizing the council’s decision at a future meeting.
The city’s agreement with the hotel development team, coalesced under an LLC known as “Stanford Buena Park,” was originally approved in 2016. The land was purchased in 2015.
Years went by and many delays followed, with little to nothing built on the site.
Representatives for the project, Seth Merewitz and Jim Suhr, have attributed much of the delays to soil issues at the site and the coronavirus pandemic, which they say strained the market when it came to gathering the financing.
But the project representatives and staff on Tuesday said considerable progress had actually been made between August 2019 and March 2020, solving the soil issues and even planning for a construction groundbreaking by the latter end of last year.
“We were doing really well, then COVID-19 hit,” Suhr said, arguing they were still committed to building the hotel. They had already spent $1.7 million on the project’s initial preparations.
Their arguments apparently weren’t sufficient for some City Council members.
“My patience with this developer is running very thin,” Mayor Connor Traut said before the vote. “Issues related to this hotel predate the pandemic, some of it not in their control, some of it in their control.”
“This project obviously has been a disappointment,” Councilwoman Beth Swift said. “I don’t know I can trust the developer to meet the current timeline, since the developer did not meet the previous one.”
Officials’ buying the property back would make it public land — but only after what city staff warn could be a lengthy court battle with the developers.
Though city staff that night also found themselves the subject of scrutiny, over whether or not they were truly making unbiased recommendations on the project’s approval.
Namely, City Attorney Chris Cardinale was questioned by a resident for his tone of support for the project Tuesday night.
Wilson said the union has been following the issue of public lands in Orange County closely as the decisions around them affect many working-class members of their group who live nearby.
Buena Park’s Tuesday debate “represents us calling the question on the entire region, of what elected officials want to do with their public resources,” Wilson said.
Multiple union members were present in the council meeting chambers and spoke during public comments.
Buena Park resident Jesus Beltran told Voice of OC before the meeting that he provides for six children — the oldest being 14 years old — and that he worries for their future if the local cost of living continues to rise.
“We see it right now, rents are really high,” Beltran, who works at the Disneyland resort and the Anaheim Hilton Hotel, said through a Spanish-speaking translator. “To see this piece of land sitting there … I worry for future generations of Orange County.”
But not everyone on the council who supported declaring default believed the hotel property was public land or that it should be used for community benefits like affordable housing.
“This shouldn’t even be part of this discussion,” said Councilman Art Brown, followed by city staff saying the area didn’t allow uses like affordable housing under its entertainment sector designation under the city’s general plan.
Traut, responding to that point at the end of the meeting, requested a discussion on the city’s overall vision for that stretch of Beach Blvd to be placed on a future meeting agenda with an aim to better reflect community needs.
“Prior councils in our city and cities everywhere have the unfortunate history of prioritizing what use of land will bring in more money for their city’s general fund,” Traut said in an interview before the meeting. “It’s something I want to do with these lands, to eliminate that incentive from being a prime motivating factor.”