Plenty of eyes have grown numb to that bland, empty lot running diagonal between Fairview Street and 10th in the Artesia Pilar neighborhood of northwest Santa Ana. 

And when you’ve lived around it as long as the president of the area’s neighborhood association, Ruby Woo, you start to appreciate any natural scenery you can get.

“Any time we can get any green space in the neighborhood is fantastic,” she said in a phone interview, praising recently-approved city plans to turn the unused lot by the Santa Ana River into a 9,000 square-foot pocket park with bike and walking paths, art installations, lighting and seating. 

The vote to approve the project was unanimous among City Council members at their meeting last Tuesday – and noncontroversial, being lumped into the often less noteworthy city business on the council meeting’s consent calendar. 

Yet research has shown that even a pocket-sized dent in a citywide park shortage can enhance an entire area, not just aesthetically but for its residents’ health, relieving stress levels in people and reducing crime in a town where the poverty rate outpaces that of the county’s. 

The area’s council member, Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, tallied the project’s pro’s before the item passed, as an effort yielding “safe streets for pedestrians … it will have shading structures with trees; drought tolerant landscaping …  green street elements …”

“I’m very happy that this is coming to our backyard,” he said in brief comments from the dais.

A Parks Master Plan approved by council members last May shows just how far the city has to go, counting 43 areas across town deemed “park deficient.”

“Of these, 23 are categorized as ‘high need,’ because they are below the poverty level, have a majority non-white population, have a higher residential density, and/or are in Environmental Justice Communities or […] areas for redevelopment,” reads the document.

And in a built-out city that’s projected to grow by nearly 30,000 residents by 2030, officials are thinking beyond swathes of open land – factoring open space sites like schools for joint-use, undeveloped city-owned space, and pocket parks, which account for 3.7 of the city’s total 370 park acres.

Between 3-4% of city land in total is used for parks and recreation space, according to the Trust for Public Lands, whose statistic was included in the parks master plan. 

Currently there are 1.1 acres of parkland in Santa Ana for every 1,000 residents, which is “significantly less” than the 3 acres for every 1,000 recommended in the city’s revised General Plan

That document outlines the city’s planning goals through 2045. 

“Santa Ana’s parkland is also far less than typically provided by cities of a comparable size,” the parks plan reads.

But it also offers ways out of the shortfall, highlighting a number of areas where acreage could increase. Among them would be the development of the Willowick Golf Course on the west side of town into a public open space, which is a vision of the city’s but not a vision of the city that legally owns the site.

After Santa Ana officials made their stance on Willowick clear in a letter between mayors last year, the neighboring City of Garden Grove walked back their negotiations with developers on leasing the site.

But even factoring all the possible parkland, joint-use sites, and trails identified by Santa Ana officials – amounting to 176 new park acres citywide – would only reach an estimated 1.8 acres per 1,000 residents, according to the parks plan.

All this would work toward preparing for more than 362,000 total residents by the end of the decade, something the parks plan describes as “adding significant strain onto the City’s existing park, facilities, and trails systems.” 

With the help of nearly $1.5 million in state transportation funding, the urban greening project in Artesia Pilar is a dent Woo said she can appreciate.

The lot’s current state, an abandoned street area, hasn’t seen much use beyond illegal dumping. 

Now it’s expected to become a site for groundwater capture. 

Officials say construction will probably start in November this year, with completion in June 2024.

In an Artesia Pilar Neighborhood Association letter to officials dated one year ago, while the project was still in its early stages, Woo hailed the project as a contribution toward water quality goals and fighting climate change.

“It makes a difference in the neighborhood,” Woo said over the phone. “Makes it safer.”

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