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A decrepit but historic fire station building in an underserved Santa Ana neighborhood won’t fall into private ownership for now, reigniting hope among community leaders that the building can become a center for public services.
It comes after residents voiced outrage over a number of recent, closed-session land sale negotiations around the building between Santa Ana City Hall and home-builder construction firm T.R. Customs, apparently initiated by the previous council.
The Cypress Fire Station — also known as Fire Station #4 — may be the first and oldest fire station in the city, located in the Eastside/Pacific Park neighborhood.
It’s one of the last remaining publicly-owned buildings in the area.
Now the current City Council has decided to reject a sale of the land to T.R. Customs altogether, in a unanimous closed-session vote on Tuesday, according to a disclosure at the beginning of the day’s public session by City Attorney Sonia Carvalho:
“The council would like to see staff explore using this site for community-oriented programming, and also asked for additional security to ensure the property is preserved during this period of time when they are looking at other options.”
Officials did not say publicly Tuesday how much money was offered to purchase the property. Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, in a text message after the meeting, said the offer was $120,000 while the building’s appraisal value was $356,000.
Selica Diaz, a Pacific Park Neighborhood leader, has been a frontline advocate for getting the fire station back under public control.
She and others have a number of ideas for how to use the building as a community center — it could host senior services, or an iteration of the Santa Ana Police Dept.’s Police Athletic & Activity League (PAAL) youth after school program, or a “family justice center.”
Such a center, similar to the one located inside the Santa Ana Police Dept. headquarters, “would be very helpful for people in our community because there are people here who suffer from domestic violence, so they can get more information and help,” Diaz said in an interview after Carvahlo’s announcement.
She added that a police substation, even something as modest as a computer and a desk in the building, would help address what she claims are significant public safety concerns in the area.
The station fell into dilapidation for a number of years, and has been boarded up with plywood.
The property is listed as “key” on the Santa Ana Register of Historic Properties.
At a special meeting on May 24, the construction firm’s executive, Taylor Rudd, made a final, public appeal to the council to obtain the building.
“I feel I’m running against the time clock on this and the sooner we get this restored, the more valuable this is going to be to the city, the community,” he said. “I’ve talked to neighbors who are a little concerned about what’s hanging around there. The neighbors are excited to see the building taken care of and restored.”
At that meeting, he said he had a number of plans for the building, including the construction of a monument to commemorate the building’s fire fighting history.
He added that he has experience with historic buildings, citing his ownership of one in Oregon, which he said was built in 1899 converted to apartments in the 1930s:
“I bought that almost 25 years ago and maintained that as low cost housing, my tenants are paying probably on the average of $500 a month, everyone in the neighborhood is paying $800-1500 a month.”
“I would just like to get in it, serve the community with it, do a little give back, and restore the building,” he said. “It’s not gonna cost the city anything, but will preserve it for the next 100 years, that’s my hope.”
The building was declared “surplus” by the city, and in February 2020 — under a prior City Council — it was notified to all housing sponsors and affordable housing groups registered on the state’s “Developer Interest List,” per the state Surplus Land Act, according to city spokesperson Paul Eakins through information he provided via email in May.
That state law is meant to prioritize a local public agency’s city-owned property for affordable housing and open space uses.
Then the city in February this year released a Request for Proposals — putting the property out to bid — by developer groups to purchase the property.
In the call for bids, the city baked in requirements that any developer at least retain the historic aesthetic of the building in any way possible.
Still, members of the public over the last year increasingly spoke out against the city’s possible sale of the property, decrying officials’ approach as non-transparent, even secretive.
Not one of those meetings between the city and T.R. Customs around the fate of the building happened in front of the general public, as officials say they fell under confidential real estate negotiations, which state law allows to happen behind closed doors.
The Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open government meetings law, narrowly allows cities to legally enter these confidential real estate discussions, so long as they only pertain to the subjects of price and terms.
Jeff Dickman, a French Park resident and former County of Orange planner, in one May 4 letter to officials, raised questions about the city’s lack of adequate outreach to the public about the property:
“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 … A decades-old, and well-honed approach intended to reduce public involvement and streamline City Council’s decision-making.”
Now, after Tuesday’s news, Diaz says there’s hope:
“I’m very happy, but I know it’s going to be a long, long way before we see something done.”
Still, she said, “this is really good for us.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.