For years in Santa Ana, some wondered when one of the city’s oldest and last pre-war buildings on south Cypress Street, an old fire station, might crumble beyond recognition.

Or go up in flames.

Now the building may have a different fate.

For nearby residents, that hopefully means an end to the 1920s-era building’s days of getting tagged and boarded up with plywood, even while it was listed in the city’s historic register.

So what’s next for the blighted old “Fire Station #4”? 

That question has made the building an inflection point in another debate in town, a years-long ideological struggle over policing.

Some of the building’s surrounding residents yet again requested the fire station be converted to a police-and-youth facility, while community activists have long demanded those two things interact less. 

Most City Council members seemed in agreement on Tuesday that City Hall staff should explore making the building a permanent space, among other uses, for the police department’s Police Athletic & Activities League (PAAL), which coaches kids in sports, helps them with homework, and even once taught them fingerprinting and DNA evidence collection.

Earlier that night, a host of self-identified Pacific Park / Eastside neighborhood residents welcomed the thought of a closer PAAL program from the public comment podium. 

Several promised that a new police presence would drive away youth delinquency, and that the building’s renovation will keep unhoused people away from them.

“I’m very happy because the city has started renovation of Cypress Street fire station,” said Selica Diaz, a neighborhood volunteer who’s advocated for the fire station’s reuse, during public comment. “So I’m happy because the homeless (are) out of there.” 

One speaker, Karen Marx, claimed kids around there need the police to be successful. 

“This is all about our kids. Our kids in that area need our help … PAAL provides that and the police officer substation would help in that regard as well. These kids need to build relationships with the PD if they are going to be successful citizens in the country — or county. And in our city.” 

When Jaime Ramirez was promoted to principal of the Roosevelt Walker Academy, located on Halladay Street, he said he “immediately reached out to PAAL and brought them to my school.” 

Results showed after a year, and physical fitness scores went up, Ramirez said from the podium on Tuesday. One officer started a girls’ softball team, the Bumblebees. “The Bumblebees created a fire that cannot be extinguished.” 

“Our community wants more,” Ramirez said. “Our residents want more. And I, as the principal of Roosevelt Walker Academy, want to provide my students all the opportunities they deserve. Personally, I don’t see them as a program. To me, they are part of my staff, and I also see them as part of our school.”

There were also kids who showed up that night to push the program they themselves said they went through, reading written remarks at the podium about how PAAL removed a “stigma” about “needing to fear police officers.”

“Additionally, I got to go to Disneyland with the program, which is something that, on the normal, we wouldn’t be able to do on our own,” one kid read aloud, adding that program staff showed up to support youth at school plays and track meets, even gifting them free pairs of Vans for school.

“We get to know police officers personally and respect them, which can get rid of all the negative stereotypes that we hear by the media,” the kid continued reading. 

Others had a different take – that PAAL already expanded to Roosevelt Walker, that the neighborhood didn’t need the program in the rather small building, or that the old fire station should become a digital library instead.

“During discussions in the Pacific Park Neighborhood Association, there’s a lot of fear-mongering happening, equating not having PAAL with increasing crime. That we need a substation there because it will magically make crime disappear,” said one Pacific Park resident, Victor Payan, reading written comments from the podium. 

Nathaniel Greensides, a progressive activist and member of the city’s Environmental and Transportation Advisory Commission, called into public comments remotely, saying PAAL indeed appeared to offer “beneficial programs to residents.”

But he said some of the rhetoric that night – what he described as an “adherence to a fervent belief in police-administered youth programming” – all felt “very eerie.”

Payan called for another use – something that “bridges the internet digital divide with … computer resources; educational programs for youth adults and seniors; career development programs for youth and adults; arts and culture events; a community meeting and event space; none of which was included in the staff recommendation.”

Though many speakers in favor of the PAAL expansion also argued for a multi-purpose activation of the building, something for cultural events and seniors.

But for now, the digital library idea doesn’t seem to have much gas with the city’s own library director, Brian Sternberg, who said the fire station’s only about a mile away from the main library. And, he said, it already boasts “an abundance” of digital literacy programs thanks to some transformative COVID-19 bailout money from the federal government. 

“My recommendation would be to look toward the southern part of the city which does not have any library physical locations in it at all, and that is much more a remote region of the city in terms of access and equity in what I can provide,” Sternberg said.

Still, council members like Johnathan Ryan Hernandez and Jessie Lopez stopped short of endorsing the PAAL expansion. 

“I think there could be a better home for it,” Hernandez said. “I don’t think this one is the one.”

“If I’m clear about one thing, it’s that this place needs to be a multi-purpose facility,” Lopez said.

The fire station’s outlook once looked much different, and more opaque, as a previous City Council under former longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido attempted to move the sale of the fire station forward to a private developer, in a process that locals criticized as non-transparent.

In July last year, the current council moved to retain ownership of the building rather than sell it. A few months later, council members allocated $1 million to renovations, including preservation of the building’s “historic elements,” according to city staff.

The PAAL idea was bound to be a tricky talking point in a city that, since the last election cycle, has seen a more progressive council faction gain influence, one more open to rethinking the police’s role in community and social services. And over the same time, another section of the dais grew more vocal in support of the police.

And many council members that night spoke in favor of PAAL moving in. 

“Every day I’m surprised that thing’s still standing, I really am, and rather than continue to waste our time messing around with this, let’s just get to it – we’ve got a program that works,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra. “We always keep hearing about law enforcement versus the community, and here we see that gap being bridged.”

There’s currently just one police officer assigned to PAAL and the rest of the people overseeing all its programming are civilian staff, said Police Chief David Valentin in response to council questions during the meeting. 

By the end of the meeting, City Manager Kristine Ridge counted majority support for the PAAL idea, as well as providing community meeting space and senior programing at the building – all of which would have to come back to the council for final approval at a future time.

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento couched the debate as a type of problem other communities would “love” to have. 

He also said the PAAL expansion’s costs, if approved and when the time comes, should come out of the police department’s own existing budget – not out of the taxpayer general fund.

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