Much potential lies in a historic yet run-down fire station in an underserved Santa Ana neighborhood, community leaders say.
It could be a library or technology center with Wi-Fi access, providing crucial services to local kids after school and bridging residents’ digital divide.
It could also serve as a local heritage center, educating residents on their community’s history.
Instead, critics say, Santa Ana’s public officials have moved quietly to sell the land without properly reaching out to key neighborhood associations and historical preservation groups — a process some residents say could take this city-owned building, and the much-needed community potential around it, away from the public with little transparency.
Santa Ana’s City Council discussed the property in secret Tuesday, with an interested negotiating party known as Taylor Rudd, who the city lists as the owner of home-builder construction firm T.R. Customs.
City spokesman Paul Eakins said he would check back when asked for a list of entities the city notified and reached out to, regarding the old fire station’s status as a surplus property. He said he did not have the information as of Wednesday.
The Cypress Fire Station — also known as Fire Station #4 — may be the first and oldest fire station in the city, located in the underserved Eastside/Pacific Park neighborhood. It’s one of the last remaining publicly-owned buildings in the area, residents say.
“Tapping into our City’s historical narrative, library offerings & wifi access is important for working class neighborhoods like Eastside/Pacific Park,” wrote one community leader, Sandra “Pocha” Pena Sarmiento, in a letter to the city.
“Keeping historic structures open and available to the public gives neighborhoods like ours a sense of identity and hope,” she added.
Irma Jauregui, a member of the Santa Ana Healthy Neighborhood Alliance, describes herself as “the eternal optimist.”
“I can see great benefits in the fire station,” Jauregui said in a Tuesday interview. “Oh my gosh, there could be fabulous benefits once you turn weaknesses of neighborhoods into something positive.”
“We have to stop the sale,” Jauregui said. “When those assets are sold to a private owner, the use for the community is lost forever. We would lose an enormous asset, our youth will never know it, for many reasons we must keep it.”
Jeff Dickman, a French Park resident and former County of Orange planner, in another letter raised questions about the city’s lack of adequate outreach to the public about the property:
“A decades-old, and well-honed approach intended to reduce public involvement and streamline City Council’s decision-making.”
The property, which is listed as “key” on the Santa Ana Register of Historic Properties, was declared “surplus” by the city.
The station fell into dilapidation for a number of years, and has been boarded up with plywood amid residents’ complaints.
“Instead of advocating for the reuse of its own building, for use by the community of Eastside/Pacific Park, the City has quietly brought this item to Council’s agenda with almost no outreach to your long-time preservation and community partners,” Dickman wrote in the May 4 letter to the council.
On top of leaving out the Eastside/Pacific Park community, Dickman said the city failed to contact the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, Heritage Orange County, and Preserve Orange County about the potential sale.
He notes all three groups were key to the ongoing effort to save the historic First American Title Building in downtown from demolition.
“As a result of its minimalist approach, the City Council is poised to sell the property,” Dickman wrote in the May 4 letter. “This leaves the community, and other City partners, unable to participate, effectively eliminating other alternative solutions.”
He added: “None of City’s long-established and active preservation and community organizations were invited to participate in this discussion to consider ways (to) re-make Fire Station #4 as a community asset.”
Santa Ana is a city that — in lieu of immediate beaches or hills — takes pride in its cultural heritage, as well as its historic buildings and architecture, said Dickman.
The building is “uniquely located between and in front of homes that are some of the last remaining Victorian style architecture in the City and all in the Pacific Park/ Eastside neighborhood,” wrote Heninger Park resident and Historical Resources Commissioner Ginelle Hardy in a letter to the council.
The fire station, Hardy wrote, “is the equally important and valued Mission/ Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture.”
City Council members who responded to Voice of OC inquiries about the fire station said they were limited on what they could say about the city’s possible move regarding their secret negotiations with T.R. Customs and how they may vote.
Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, reached for comment Wednesday, said she’s only learned about the fire station issue recently — specifically, the last time it appeared on the agenda.
So, she said, she toured the property recently with city staff and then met with residents like Jauregui, Hardy and others to talk about the station and its surrounding issues.
“The thought of selling any surplus property — it’s a heavy thing, because once you sell it, it’s not easy to get back,” Phan said. “I wanted to have the time to learn about the issues around it … the historical aspect, the cultural aspect, the community aspect.”
Yet, she noted:
“I also don’t want to hold on to something if it really is just because of sentiment. (The building) is in extreme disrepair and costing us a lot of money to maintain.”
Councilmember Jessie Lopez, reached for comment ahead of Tuesday’s secret discussion among city council members, said there are real concerns about the amount of transparency — or lack thereof — around the way the city handles its own property, the sale of it, and development in one of the U.S.’ densest metropolitan areas.
That same Tuesday night, Lopez requested a discussion of possibly expanding the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, a rule requiring advance public notice around council development project decisions and discussions and other policy issues.
Lopez on Tuesday sought to get council support to expand the transparency law’s requirements around the number of community meetings required around proposed projects, increasing the notification square foot radius of surrounding residents living near the project site, and also requiring that renters — not just homeowners — be notified as well.
It was a direction to staff — to come back to the council with those options for a later vote — that many of Lopez’s colleagues supported:
“A lot of times we do have absentee landlords, so for folks impacted by projects day in and day out, they should be notified and have that opportunity to voice their concerns to the respective commissions and city council,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra.
Lopez, on the subject, said the city can always do more in the vein of transparency — “to really uphold the values of transparency that we discuss and talk about at the dais.”