It’s still unclear if a set of handball courts will get rebuilt in Chepa’s Park after Santa Ana officials tore them down last year.
It comes after a years-long fight over whether handball courts fuel or help alleviate the city’s public safety issues.
That fight played out on the public dais Tuesday, during a meeting where City Council members refused to move forward on finding immediate ways to rebuild the court, despite a push to do so by Councilman Johnathan Ryan Hernandez.
Other council members said the parks master plan, a comprehensive and ongoing effort to re-envision their parks and recreational spaces citywide, could address the issue.
Officials have said they removed the courts at the request of homeowners in the surrounding Logan neighborhood, who complained the courts brought undesirable and illegal activity to an area where residents say they’ve fought to keep it out.
Proponents of the handball courts say that’s not true — that in reality, the courts have provided youth with much-needed outlets in a city where there are few — and that the sport is rooted in the history and heritage of Santa Ana’s predominant Latino population.
They also say those who advocated for removing the courts — namely Joe Andrade, the son of Chepa’s Park’s late namesake — have misled the City Council and clouded officials’ judgement on what the surrounding neighborhood truly wants.
The majority of the council did not want staff to come back with options and a public discussion over whether to rebuild the courts.
Instead, council members like Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza said the issue was better solved by addressing it in the ongoing parks master plan, a process which began last year.
City spokesman Paul Eakins said the process is expected to go through “most of 2021.”
During that process, a majority of council members said, those who both supported and opposed the courts at Chepa’s Park could be heard on the issue.
“I appreciate this effort to get input from the community, but I think the more responsible way for us as a whole council … (is) to really allow the Parks Master Plan process to go through and let’s monitor it closely,” Bacerra said.
Bacerra voiced concern that having staff “put more time into this” issue over the Chepa’s Park courts would essentially be “duplicative.”
Hernandez pointed out the unique community rift over the courts in the district he represents and voiced concern over pushing the issue off and lumping it into a citywide discussion: “If we wait for the Parks Master Plan outreach, it’s essentially going to be the same result.”
“My concern is that what’s happened today is going to derail any resident participation and belief in government. They’ve already gone through a petition on multiple occasions,” Hernandez said, adding:
“How many times is a working class neighborhood going to have to champion what they want?”
He continued: “If I were in their shoes and the Parks Master Plan was happening, I’d probably have no faith in it either.”
Many members of the public who called into the meeting to speak Tuesday, with the exception of Andrade and a few others, supported rebuilding the courts — arguing the courts are being blamed for attracting homeless people or crime when in fact those are systemic issues that city officials are responsible for solving.
Many of the comments emailed to the council that night voiced opposition to rebuilding the courts, claiming they were a nuisance and disrupting nearby homeowners’ quality of life.
Hernandez, like others who spoke in support of the courts during public comment, cast doubt on whether city officials and homeowners supporting the courts’ removal were accurately characterizing the scale of the local opposition to them.
He pointed to a petition in favor of the courts’ removal, which was attached to the agenda for the discussion that night: “I just wanted to provide a correction to Madam City Clerk — the petition was not entirely made of Santa Ana residents.”
Hernandez said he studied the petition and just who exactly signed it.
“Three of the signatures are from residents who do not reside in Logan. One of the resident’s addresses is a business. A total of eight addresses provided signatures of residents sharing the same household,” said Hernandez, who added that another signature belonged to a La Habra resident.
During public comment, Andrade said a “majority” of people don’t want the handball courts rebuilt and residents there shouldn’t have to “hear everybody cussing, drinking everyday, doing drugs.”
“If you look at all the petitions going on, all the people who are going to call in today, we don’t want it. The undesirables just come in,” he said.
Mayor Vicente Sarmiento on Tuesday said he’s seen bad activity at other recreational sports areas — “Do we do away with those?”
“I don’t want this to be a narrative on, ‘handball courts bad, other spaces good.’ Maybe some spaces are designed more poorly than others, and I would fall back on, how do you design an open space?” Sarmiento said.
Proper public outreach on the fate of the courts “is something that should have been done before the (courts’) removal, and done well,” he added. “And it wasn’t.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.