People running stop signs, cars driving the wrong way and no place to park – these are a handful of concerns residents in Placentia’s Clementine community have raised with city officials over the Santa Fe avenue closure in Old Town.

“I watch people making illegal U-Turns all the time,” said Stephen Gaines, a 13-year Clementine resident, on Friday. “They will drive up the wrong way which is an accident waiting to happen.”

He wants the city to reopen Santa Fe both ways like it was before the pandemic.

City council members at their meeting tonight will publicly hold a study session discussing doing just that after some residents spoke out at the previous meeting this month and meetings in the past.

The discussion is happening at the request of Councilmen Jeremy Yamaguchi and Chad Wanke.

Wanke said in a Friday phone interview that people who live near Santa Fe avenue are impacted by the current street setup and he would like to reopen the street both ways until the city makes progress on their streetscape master plan.

“It’s clear to me that for the people that live there, it’s creating a lot of different problems for them,” he said.

Santa Fe Avenue, like various downtown streets across the County, closed in the summer of 2020 to allow for outdoor dining and help struggling businesses amid the Coronavirus pandemic. 

The closure also ate into the limited parking in the area.

“I was okay with it during the pandemic. I think it was great what the city did. They worked fast. They got the tables out here. They showed the merchants and showed us what they were capable of doing,” Gaines said. “But then it kept dragging on and there wasn’t a lot of communication.”

The city reopened Santa Fe in August but in a one way direction with white barriers on the side of the street where cars used to be able to park before the pandemic. A parallel street is also one way in the same direction making it tricky for people to navigate or get back home.

Santa Fe Avenue in Old Town Placentia on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

The decision has galvanized residents like Geno Apicella, a 14-year Clementine resident, to engage city leaders and demand change.

“Did you know what you’ve done to us down there?,” said Apicella earlier this month, publicly challenging city leaders during public comment at their regularly scheduled city council meeting. 

“You’ve killed us down there. We have no parking. We have no way to get into our development. You’ve made us go through back alleys. Do you guys go through back alleys when you go home?” said Apicella at the Sept. 6 City council meeting.

He told Voice of OC that residents have been asking officials about reopening the street for at least a year, sending emails and showing up to council meetings since indoor dining resumed.

Apicella said in a text message that they have asked the city numerous times why the street remained closed and what the city’s plans were for the area.

“They showed us ones designed 6 years ago yet not one groundbreaking improvement has ever started,” Apicella wrote.

Stephen Gaines (left) and Geno Apicella (right) on Santa Fe Avenue on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the city earlier this year shows support for a street closure downtown.

Mayor Rhonda Shader, the district representative, in an email response to questions said that the survey showed that 88% of the little over 300 respondents were in favor of a permanent street closure with widened sidewalks and other public amenities. Placentia has a population of 51,274.

“This along with the communications directly with residents and public comment at council meetings led to the decision to open up the street in a one way direction leaving some open space for the businesses and restaurants to have some outdoor space,” Shader said.

Wanke said he questioned who exactly filled out the survey at a meeting.

“There was no validation that the people that were filling out the survey are the ones that live there,” he said, adding that his main priority is Placentia residents.

Shader said in her email that she has met with merchants and residents including Clementine HomeOwner Association board to discuss the issue. But Gaines and Apicella, who sit on the board, said the mayor didn’t meet with them.

It’s not just residents complaining.

Even some of the business owners say the closure – intended to help them – has made them lose business because of the lack of parking. 

Others, however, are excited to see what the city has planned for the Old Town area and the continuation of outdoor dining that helped them survive the pandemic.

Placentia Business Owners Weigh in on Closure

Residents are not the only ones raising concerns about Santa Fe avenue’s current setup.

Manuel Pineda, owner of Imperial Market and Restaurant, said in a Friday interview that the closure had impacted his business a lot and estimated his business losing 30%.

“The City does not want to do nothing for us,” Pineda said.

Pineda said his market which is also a butcher shop and restaurant has always had an issue with parking and the closure and now the barriers took away several of the parking spots in the area.

He worries that if business continues to decrease he’ll have to let people go.

Manuel Pineda, owner of Imperial Market & Restaurant in Old Town Placentia, wipes down a counter on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

Down the street from Imperial, William Sinn owns and runs San Sushi – a business he started in Old Town Placentia four years ago.

Sinn said in a Friday interview that customers have been complaining about the lack of parking and that he would like to see more parking created near downtown.

He even noted that when hiring staff, some people never showed up to the interview because there’s no place to park.

However, Sinn said he likes the way the street is set up and would like to see tables brought back outside in the area.

“That would be better. More options for the customers. It definitely will help business,” Sinn said.

William Sinn, Owner of San Sushi, speaks to a reporter at his business on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

Madison Cullen, a 24-year-old waitress at San Sushi, said she often has to leave customers to move her car from a four hour lot nearby so she doesn’t get ticketed.

She and family members often worry about her walking to the lot at night alone.

“The parking lot is creepy,” Cullen said. “It does feel like a horror movie.”

Cullen said before when the street was closed there were tables and chairs outside, live music and people would come bring their dogs but not a lot of the businesses around the area maintained and cleaned their tables like San Sushi did.

She said the current white barriers along the street take away from the charm and with the two parallel one way streets that go in the same direction there are often people going the wrong way.

Geno Apicella (left) and Madison Cullen (right) talk about the street closure in Old Town Placentia on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

Across the street from San Sushi is the family owned business El Cantarito.

Owner Francisco Miranda has been a vocal proponent of reopening Santa Fe the way it was prior to the pandemic and spoke out at a city council meeting earlier this month.

Miranda, who is related to Pineda, said in a Friday interview that prior to the pandemic business was booming especially on Taco Tuesday.

“We had a pretty packed house at lunchtime, and dinnertime, and weekends have always been pretty busy,” he said. 

Now, they’re at a 60% staffing level and sales are down 30%, according to Miranda.

“From the pandemic to now we haven’t been able to recover and I think the street closure has made a big difference because people can’t park and get to us,” he said.

Despite their struggles during the pandemic and the loss of their father just prior to the pandemic, Miranda, his family and El Cantarito have been helping others.

Back in 2020, El Cantarito started to match meal donations made by customers and deliver food to first responders. Miranda said they’re still matching meal donations but it isn’t as popular as before.

[Read: El Cantarito Restaurant Matches Meal Donations During Coronavirus Pandemic]

Miranda said he was grateful that the street was closed at the onset of the pandemic because it allowed them to carry on with business but after indoor dining resumed it wasn’t as busy.

He added people now try to avoid the street.

“If we could go back to before the pandemic, we’ll get that flow of traffic both ways again,” Miranda said. “And then there’s parking on both sides, that opens up – not a crazy amount of spots, but 10 on each side would make a huge difference.”

His staff also worry and struggle with getting parking tickets.

Francisco Miranda, owner of El Cantarito, said his business is down 30% because of the closure. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

Others are not as stressed by the situation.

Raul Davis, a manager at Tlaquepaque – another Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe, said on Friday that they were fortunate the city closed the street for outdoor dining.

“That was our life support, if we weren’t able to do that, I don’t know if we would have made it through the whole pandemic not being able to serve outside,” Davis said.

He acknowledged that while customers have complained about parking, he has also received a lot of positive reviews about being able to eat outside.

The white barriers on Santa Fe currently block Tlaquepaque’s own parking lot.

“It’s not really an issue,” Davis said. “We also do events out there in a parking lot.”

“The city has a lot of plans as well to allow us to do outdoor dining and stuff but they’re still working on them.”

Raul Davis, manager of El Tlaquepaque, said the outdoor dining implemented by the city helped the restaurant survive the pandemic. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

City Responds

Shader said there has been increased traffic enforcement in the area in response to the residents safety concerns.

Wanke also said that the city has increased parking options in Old Town over the years but the closure of Santa Fe has taken away the most convenient space for elderly people and business owners.

The City and OCTA also made an agreement in 2016 to fund construction of the Metrolink in Old Town along with a $10 million parking structure but the project has been delayed.

“The project has been delayed due to the station and a portion of the structure being built on BNSF property which requires BNSF’s approval and cooperation.  In addition, we have not received a timeline from OCTA or Metrolink at this point as to when that agreement may be finalized,” Shader said.

A mural in Old Town Placentia on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: ALLIE LEICHTER, Voice of OC

Wanke said given how easy it would be to reopen the street in both directions, he doesn’t know why they wouldn’t make the change.

“If we need to shut it down later for improvements, or for a train station, then we do it then,” he said.

“We need to err on the side of what’s best for the public, rather than what’s most convenient for the city.”

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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