For the first time in nearly 40 years, Santa Ana’s foundational planning document known as the General Plan is due for a major overhaul on Tuesday.

The policy of long-term goals and visions for this built-out city of 330,000 people — which is supposed to guide city leaders’ choices on issues of housing, transportation, public services, open space, and community health — hasn’t been comprehensively revised since 1982.

Council members are set to vote on the draft update, which would last through 2045, at today’s meeting. For instructions on how to access it, click here.

A Key Stage

Community leaders around town see new opportunities at this juncture to set goals around the city’s large open space deficit, as well as other environmental issues like industrial water pollution and lead contamination disproportionately impacting its poorer neighborhoods.

Retooling the main ideas and objectives listed under the General Plan toward expanding park space in the city, would be one way to do that, says Santa Ana open space advocate Cynthia Guerrera.

Open space directly impacts other environmental issues in town like air quality and stormwater pollution, Guerra said, adding that those issues “are going to get worse” if left unaddressed in officials’ vision for the city’s future.

It was the subject of the environment — and a letter from the state Attorney General — that prompted a delay of the General Plan update late last year, for more time to conduct public outreach and modify the draft according to residents’ concerns.

Santa Ana has a host of what the city calls “Environmental Justice Communities.”

They’re defined as parts of town where people are most prone to air, water, and soil pollution — caused by passing vehicles on its busy, often congested roadways or the activities of local businesses. 

[Read: Whistleblowers Say a Santa Ana Sheet Metal Factory is Unsafe, Polluting Water]

Residents in these areas also tend to struggle more with economic, social and health issues — like language barriers, poverty, and asthma. They also tend to get less investment from individuals, private companies, and public agencies, according to the city.

City officials have identified such communities covering west Santa Ana along Hazard and Bolsa avenues, for example, and stretching across the central part of town — along Santa Ana Blvd and Civic Center Dr — well into the eastern edge of the city from 17th Street to the southeast border. 

Accordingly, the General Plan update draft includes initiatives like getting a minimum of two acres of parkland per 1,000 residents over the next 25 years and supporting healthy food access through expanding “urban agriculture opportunities” in private and public spaces, including home gardens, community gardens, and urban farms.

Few Parks to Meet Increasing Population

The city currently suffers a park space deficit of 154 acres, a calculation made off the city’s current ratio of 1.54 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents.

That open space deficit is projected to more than double by 2045 — according to city documents around the general plan’s environmental impacts — due to a population increase resulting from the new development goals of the General Plan’s drafted update. 

The draft includes five “Focus Areas” in town where officials have set out to increase housing construction and therefore, population growth. 

In one focus area spanning West Santa Ana Boulevard, which also has environmental issues mapped out by the city, officials expect to build more than 1,200 new housing units in the long run. 

Advocates for poorer communities in town have concerns about those development goals.

“The city is really pushing for a lot of unrestricted development in general, and not just for affordable housing, that will exacerbate the issue with this open space deficit,” said Guerra, a member of the Kennedy Commission and Rise Up Willowick community group. 

Thus, Guerra said the city’s outlined goals around its park-space-to-resident ratio needs to be three acres per 1,000 residents — not two — and that there need to be tighter commitments to making up for open space in development projects. 

“Another thing that’s really important is the city needs to make sure that it’s not just the prioritization of current existing parkland, but the consideration of existing open space (like golf courses and other non-public green lands) as usable parkland, as well,” Guerra said. 

El Salvador Park in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Guerra, as an example, pointed to the ongoing fight over the Willowick Golf Course, currently eyed by various developer interests and local officials for different uses. Some around the area have pushed to preserve the golf course as a park. 

“You want to increase your parkland? Well, there’s a solution right there,” Guerra said.

The focus areas in the draft General Plan have also been of interest to business owners and economic interests in town. 

Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce President Dave Elliot said people and entities represented by his advocacy organization are most interested in the 55 Freeway and South Main Street areas.

He said the South Main area “needs a lot of attention and upgrades” as a “main artery into downtown,” while his group welcomes the residential construction and commercial stops proposed for the sector along the 55 Freeway.

In the 55 Freeway focus area, officials plan on building more than 8,700 new housing units.

That brought the city into conflict with the John Wayne Airport Land Use Commission at the County of Orange, which in October last year determined plan conflicts with the commission’s goals and unanimously deemed the General Plan update “inconsistent.”

Part of the council’s expected vote tonight would be to override the airport commission’s findings.

Officials plan on building 588 new housing units in the South Main Street Focus Area.

“We welcome the commercial opportunities in both of those sections,” Elliot, of the Chamber of Commerce, said.

Car Dominance or Walkable Communities?

Former City Hall staffer and past council candidate Manny Escamilla says the draft General Plan isn’t perfect, but pushes in the right direction on environmental issues and traffic danger.

“Overall, it’s a very positive direction for the city and a long time coming — what I don’t want to happen is the perfect being the enemy of the good. There’s a lot of good stuff in there,” Escamilla said, adding things like the draft plan’s “orientation to walkable corridors in town is a good strategy.”

Though there are some missed opportunities, he said — one being the Civic Center portion of downtown, the hub of county government.

“The county is obviously doing a lot of reinvestment there,” Escamilla said, adding the draft General Plan update needs to rethink the Civic Center more clearly. 

“One of the things it suffers from still is this old model of single-use government office space in an era where those places have peak utilization during the day, during working hours,” he said.

But at night, Escamilla said, “it creates dead zones — so revitalization in that area could help the city; it could make a more interesting mixed or multi-use area.”

Escamilla also said the city should rezone areas next to the busy, car-dominated Bristol Street to “liven it up” into a “more activated, walkable and interesting place” — as opposed to the “hot mess” it currently is, prioritizing cars along slots of empty land space that “no one wants to buy.”

Equitable transportation advocates in town see signs of progress in the draft update to the General Plan, but still have qualms about where street and transportation infrastructure planning is headed for a city that has long widened streets and displaced residents for cars.

A pedestrian crosses First and Rait in Santa Ana during traffic hour. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Data from the Southern California Association of Governments in 2018 shows 73% of city residents used cars for commuting; 14% carpooled; 6% relied on public transit, and 7% walked or biked. 

Nearly 33% of households in town owned one car — or didn’t own one at all.

“Much of the population doesn’t have access to a vehicle, many are bicycle users out of necessity,” said Santa Ana Active Streets Director Kristopher Fortin in a phone interview. “We have an opportunity to make transportation policy more in line with the environment the city is in — to actually be relevant to the community’s mobility, general habits.”

One policy objective in the draft plan’s mobility element seeks to achieve “zero fatalities from traffic collisions through education, enforcement, and infrastructure design” over the next 25 years.

Other policy objectives also seem to put less priority on keeping traffic flow across town fast-moving and decongested — while staking out visions to “promote reductions in automobile trips and vehicle miles traveled by encouraging transit use and nonmotorized transportation.”

“The biggest streets are still the most dangerous,” Fortin said. 

In December last year, a man in a wheelchair was crossing Euclid Street when he was struck and killed by a vehicle. 

“That’s going to be something which I hope the General Plan changes,” Fortin added.

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