Orange County’s debate on where and how to build new homes during the housing crisis is flaring in Fullerton as the city considers rezoning Sunrise Village for housing, despite opposition from neighboring residents and business owners. 

Many nearby residents don’t want Sunrise Village, a commercial center tucked away off Euclid street and Rosecrans avenue, to disappear because they say it is the last commercial center in their neighborhood.

“There’s a lack of equity for us,” Carol Edmonston, a resident, said in a phone interview.“We don’t have the availability right in our neighborhood of being able to shop and have restaurants.”

She is part of Save Sunrise Village — a group pushing back against the proposal to convert the center to housing.

Sunrise Village is home to a variety of businesses, such as restaurants, a spa and a tutoring center.

At the same time, the city is struggling to meet state-mandated housing goals during California’s housing crisis – a struggle that’s played out in cities across OC. 

[Read: What Will OC’s Landscape Look Like in 10 Years? Cities Struggle With Housing Plans]

Residents say they end up having to go to nearby cities like La Habra to do their shopping – leaving the city to miss out on sales taxes.

“What’s happening now is we’re taking our money outside of the city and we are supporting the businesses in La Habra and Brea and Yorba Linda, because that’s where the shopping is for us,” Edmonston said.

“But why do we need to get in a car and drive miles and miles away to another city?”

Bill Shopoff, President and CEO for Shopoff Realty Investments — the group that bought the plaza, said their proposal will retain some retail in the center and points to the state housing shortage for the need to build homes.

“Commercial uses at this site have been struggling for over 30 years, now is the right time to look at its future. If revitalizing the entirety of Sunrise Village would have been possible and feasible, that is what we would be proposing,” he said in an email response to questions.

Shopoff said the proposed housing at the site will be market rate and not affordable, but it will bring in property tax.

“Affordability requirements would be a policy decision from the City Council. The average cost of homes will be from $600,000 – $1,000,000. There is a need for this level of housing within the Fullerton community. There have been no single-family detached or for-sale homes built in the Fullerton community in quite some time,” he said.

Meanwhile, residents aren’t the only ones concerned about the proposal.

Sunrise Village is home to many Korean American businesses who after managing to survive two years of a pandemic are now being forced to move their businesses elsewhere.

“It’s hard. My customers are my friends and I won’t see them again. I was just here and a new developer came in. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was just working, working, working. Why do I have to lose my restaurant?” said Suk Joon Park, owner of the Dumpling House located in the plaza, in an interview this month.

Suk Joon Park stands in his business, the Dumpling House, which he owns and operates in the city of Fullerton. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Park and other business owners are slated to be kicked out to make way for a proposed 153 unit residential community as cities across California face increased pressure to address a statewide housing shortage.

Many of the shops are already boarded up or empty. 

Some have moved elsewhere while other business owners are still there for now.

The closures come after Shopoff Realty Investments, a national real estate investment firm based in Irvine, announced in a news release in April 2021 that they acquired Sunrise Village.

The housing proposal at Sunrise Village from Shopoff Investments narrowly passed the planning commission in April 2022 on a 3-2 vote.

The vote came after city council members sent it back to the commission for adjustments citing “a need for the reduction of density, retention of retail space and aesthetic concerns,” according to a city staff report.

Now it’s slated to head back to the council at some point as many businesses in the plaza have already been vacated.

“It’s such a David and Goliath story that we’re not about to give up on it because it’s our neighborhood,” Edmonston said.

Fullerton City Council members were expected to decide at their meeting on Tuesday on the zone change for the plaza following a continuation of the issue from a prior meeting on June 21.

However, the zoning change is not listed on Tuesday’s meeting agenda.

Shopoff said they asked for the public hearing to be delayed to refine their plans based on community input. 

Sunrise Village shopping Complex on Friday July 8, 2022. Some businesses have cleared out their shops and boarded up their windows and shop fronts. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Juggling the Need For New Housing While Holding Onto Retail

Mayor Fred Jung said in a Thursday phone interview said he understands residents point of view in wanting to keep the center commercial.

“You don’t want to become a bedroom community, you don’t have a tax base at that point,” he said. “I understand residents’ concerns and I understand their need to have or their yearning to have existing retail remain existing retail and find some way to revitalize it.”

One way Jung said officials can try to balance their commercial and housing needs is to zone for mixed use – a blend of housing and retail.  

“But by doing that, now all of a sudden, you’re increasing the density by going higher,” he said. “And that’s something else residents don’t like. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Fullerton officials are under pressure from the state to zone for 13,209 new homes – 3,198 of which have to be for very low-income families and 1,989 for low-income families – by 2029.

According to the city’s website, Fullerton has a population of 141,882 people compared to 47,885 total housing units 95% of which are occupied.

Jung said the proposal to convert Sunrise Village into housing will not bring affordable housing to Fullerton in its current form but proposed bills in the state senate and assembly, if passed, might incentivize the developer to change that if the project keeps getting kicked down the road.

“I hope we all see the value in not only the importance of retail, in our community, but also the importance of affordable housing. And if we as a city and we as a council and we as residents can find a value in balancing that. I think we’re going to be on a good path forward,” he said.

[Read: Some North OC Cities Face an Identity Crisis When Building New Housing]

Imperial Spa on Friday July 8, 2022.

Edmonston and others have expressed concerns that Shopoff has given financial gifts to city events to gain favor and that the developer pushed up lease termination dates of the business owners to force them out.

Shopoff said they honor lease term agreements and they make contributions in a lot of the cities they have property in.

“We make charitable contributions and support the community in many, if not all of the communities we are active in,” Shopoff said. “In all the communities we retain property, we look at ways to engage and support the local community – this is not unique to Fullerton.”

Edmonston sees it differently.

“When does a gift or donation become a bribe?” she said.

Residents have other concerns too, fueling their opposition.

Fullerton resident Barbara Kiloponen stands in front of the closed Sunrise Village Pharmacy on July 8, 2022. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Barbara Kilponen, a nearby resident who served as a local school district trustee for 28 years, also said one of the biggest reasons residents are speaking out is for the Korean business owners in the plaza who are being forced out.

“This is a matter of life and fortune,” Kilponen said. “We’re not fooling around, this is important for the community to have a balance of residential, commercial and industrial zones.”

Shopoff said they have worked to retain as many businesses as they can and have worked to help relocate the current businesses.

“Shopoff, in fact, has offered to build out a whole new retail space for two of the existing tenants. Other tenants in the center have been offered generous financial packages to assist with their relocation efforts,” he said in his email.

But business owners who spoke to Voice of OC have said they were not offered money to help them move.

Sunrise Village shopping Complex on Friday afternoon, July 8. With businesses relocating in order to clear the space for a new apartment complex in the city of Fullerton, businesses have cleared out their shops and boarded up their windows and shop fronts. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Meet Some of Sunrise Village’s Business Owners

Park, who owns the Dumpling House, said he moved to the U.S. in 1998 to raise his kid in America and later started the Dumpling House in Buena Park which he ran for about 20 years.

Park said he sold the Buena Park location in May 2019 and moved into Sunrise Village in September 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic already started.

“In Corona time, nobody helped me. I couldn’t get government money because I started in September 2020 and I didn’t qualify,” he said. “When I opened it was also a hard time because the government only allowed to go (orders).”

Now with shopping center in Limbo, the 58-year old Park said he is unsure if he’s going to change his occupation but said he’s still looking for a new location for his restaurant.

Suk Joon Park, the owner of Dumpling House in the city of Fullerton, sits in front of his restaurant discussing his experience running a small business amid plans that may remove his business from the Sunrise Village shopping center to make space for housing. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

A couple shops down from Park’s Dumpling House is Imperial Spa that has been owned and operated by Korean American Linda Hong for 12 years. 

“We decided to build here because with its wonderful residential community, we can provide the relaxation and reprieve everyone needs from time to time,” Hong said in an interview earlier this month.

Hong invested $4.5 million in the business over two years as they converted their location from a Vons supermarket into a spa – taking two years to complete.

Over the years Hong has established a large clientele base for her spa and says she gets about 6,000 customers a month from all over Orange County and Southern California.

But when the pandemic hit, Hong had to close her business for more than 10 months. She said business slowed down before the government lockdown and after the lockdown was lifted things also remained slowed as people faced economic devastations.

“We survived from the pandemic. Then suddenly the new landlord said they’re going to build housing here,” she said.

Hong said Shopoff representatives told her the rent she missed during the pandemic would be waived but she has to move out.

This is despite the fact that her lease contract is supposed to expire in March 2023 with the option to extend for 15 years, Hong said.

“I don’t understand what they are doing right now against the small business owners here in the shopping center. A few tenants have already been evicted,” she said.

Hong is unsure what it would cost to build a new spa nowadays but said with the inflation it will probably be more expensive.

Imperial Spa on Friday July 8, 2022. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Near Imperial Spa is the Elite Education Institute run by Mikki Kim, the branch director in Fullerton.

Kim said in a phone interview that the institute has also been at the plaza for 12 years and currently helps around 150-200 K-12 students.

“We would like to stay in the Fullerton area, because we feel this is our mission especially with a pandemic, with large changes in the education system, parents are confused and also, we are concerned about the last two, three years of online learning,” she said.

Kim said centers like theirs are more important than ever to supplement what students are learning at school.

Even with the struggles of the pandemic, Kim said the new landlords have also not offered them help financially to relocate.

“All of the tenants here – we survived the pandemic. I mean that was very difficult,” she said. “Now, there is a bigger hurdle where we have to find a new location, and we’re not getting any help from the landlord.”

Kim said she understands that the new landlords have their interests but everyone’s life is going to be impacted – not just the business owners but the residents too.

“This is our life. This is where we are and then all of a sudden, some huge company comes in and says, ‘hey, you know, we’re changing this’ without any time for us to understand.” 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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