The Mission Viejo City Council is yet again taking steps forward in its downtown redevelopment efforts, but officials are facing questions over cost and transparency surrounding the plans.
The council voted 4-1 at a March 14 meeting to enter a $12 million agreement with the Santa Margarita Water District to construct an office building and storage space on district land, near the city’s downtown area.
The city will be spending $4 million to help construct the building and another $8 million to build an access road and parking lot.
Councilmember Cynthia Vasquez voted against the plans, citing cost concerns.
The new two-story building at 27204 La Paz Road near city hall will house offices for city and water district staff on the second floor and storage space on the first floor.
The building is referred to as a “corp yard” — a facility to store some maintenance amenities and city vehicles.
The $12 million partnership with the water district is also meant to push along the city’s redevelopment plan — known as the “Core Area Vision Plan” — that’s been in the works since 2016 with the goal of redeveloping this downtown area near city hall.
“This layout will create room for future amenities related to the Core Area Vision Plan,” the staff report reads. “Specifically, land can be made available to extend the Oso Creek Trail on the east banks of the Oso Creek from Marguerite Parkway to La Paz Road and create land for a future community event space that can be used by both the City and the District.”
[Read: Amid Secrecy Complaints, Mission Viejo City Council Considers First Step Toward Renovating Downtown]
The council took its first step toward this plan in 2021 after the controversial purchase of a bankrupt Stein Mart building and months of closed-door discussions.
[Read: Mission Viejo Moves Ahead With Stein Mart Purchase, Locking In Millions Of Bond Debt]
Despite outcries from residents regarding the lack of transparency, the Stein Mart building purchase cost the city $11.9 million in taxpayer dollars.
The negotiations to purchase the Stein Mart building even sparked a resident lawsuit calling out the city for a lack of transparency. The suit claimed the city violated the state’s open meetings law during closed session property negotiations and possible illegitimate agenda notices when presenting plans for the redevelopment.
But now transparency alarm bells are ringing again.
Vasquez, who was elected in November, questioned if the item’s title was misleading since it’s not clear to the public at first glance that this item deals with the controversial vision plan.
The $8 million portion of the development — two-thirds of the proposed expenses — includes an access road leading up to the future site of a “community barn” and new Oso Creek trails, all of which play into the vision plan.
“I’m a little bit concerned that perhaps the title for this agenda item could be considered a little misleading because it focuses on the corp yard, yet there’s so much money going into the development of the access road and the area for that community barn, which is not a part of the corp yard,” Vasquez said at the meeting.
Assistant City Manager Kieth Rattay said the item isn’t entirely focusing on the vision plan.
“It really is about the corp yard — what we’re doing is creating opportunity down the road,” he said.
Vasquez, the first council member to raise concerns with the redevelopment plan in years, said she worries that the city’s decision to spend millions more taxpayer dollars on the redevelopment plan may backfire.
“Part of my concern is that in some ways it feels like we’re putting all of our eggs in one basket,” Vasquez said. “What happens if portions of the core vision plan don’t come together and we’ve spent all this money? How do we justify that?”
During public comments, some residents also raised concerns regarding transparency, closed-door discussions and the lack of public access to redevelopment plans.
”The public never seems to have the opportunity to actually know about this and make comments,” resident Peggy O’Neill said at the meeting. ”No real effort is made to inform the public on what you intend to spend. Like the Stein Mart building, you say you discussed in a council meeting, and ‘boom’ it was done.
“Let’s do this in a transparent manner. Stop spending taxpayer funds in this behind-closed-doors manner,” O’Neil said.
The city used to have an office and storage building on the land, but it was torn down after the Santa Margarita Water District decided to demolish the old water treatment plant.
The water district has plans to rebuild an updated treatment plant at this new site.
The vision plan also includes building two bridges to extend over Oso Creek connecting to the corp yard facility and the new water treatment plant.
Mission Viejo resident Walt Lawson, a longtime critic of the vision plan, raised cost concerns during public comment.
“This expense looks like another large cost associated with the overall core vision plan for the center across the street from city hall,” Lawson said. “We need to see and understand how this project fits into the cost for the entire core vision plan. My concern, and I know the concern of other residents, is that there has never been an explanation of the total plan and all the associated costs.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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