After a years-long fight to keep an old neighborhood fire station for community use, Santa Ana City Council members this week moved forward with plans to reuse it as an expansion of the local police athletic league. 

It comes after a public comment wave at a council meeting last summer that called for greater police presence in the dilapidated building’s surrounding Eastside / Pacific Park neighborhood.

[Read: An Old Neighborhood Fire Station Takes Center Stage in Santa Ana’s Community Policing Debate]

Most leaders under a previous City Council agreed and directed staff in August, without a vote, to explore a satellite base for an existing city youth and police program known as PAAL, currently based out of a center on McFadden Avenue, with a satellite at Roosevelt Walker Academy. 

Fast forward to Tuesday, and another line of speakers that evening asked why the place was going to law enforcement over things like books and digital learning – or why council members couldn’t delay the design plans for community input.

“Staff has promised us a public opportunity to voice our desires for the highest and best use for this firehouse and we have received zero — zero — meetings about this,” said a community leader, Sandra “Pocha” Peña Sarmiento, in public comments at the City Council’s regular meeting that night.

Sarmiento added:

“The monkeys at Prentice Park get more consideration for their built environment than the human beings residing in Eastside/Pacific Park.”

And while some council members pushed to prolong the public discussion, others on Tuesday were ready to move on. 

Mayor Valerie Amezcua, who supported the police programming, said the ball was set in motion under the previous council before she and other newcomers took office. 

“I don’t want this to turn into a debate,” said Amezcua, who at one point in the discussion asked Councilmember Jessie Lopez – who requested her time to speak – whether Lopez’s remarks were “going to take long.”

“Do you ask every council member that question?” Lopez asked. 

“No but I just want to move on from this issue,” Amezcua replied.

Councilmember Phil Bacerra, another PAAL supporter, said “We’re not here to talk about PAAL.”

“We’re here to talk about Dunbar Architecture having this contract.”

Built in 1928 and designed by Frederick M. Eley, the single-story Spanish colonial revival building now looks to bond the neighborhood kids with law enforcement through sports, just blocks from PAAL’s current satellite at Roosevelt Walker Academy.

At their regular meeting on Tuesday, a split City Council voted 5-2 to move forward with a three year, $434,000 design contract with Dunbar Architecture to renovate the building for reuse. 

“There’s a PAAL program at Roosevelt Walker (Academy), blocks from that space. Three PAAL programs in a ward that has one-and-a-half parks,” he added. “Three PAAL programs. One-and-a-half parks. Zero libraries.”

Penaloza countered that the Roosevelt Walker location was temporary, pending a permanent location at the fire station.

Council members Benjamin Vazquez and Johnathan Ryan Hernandez proposed tabling the discussion for more public input.

“That’s good that you went to the library every day. I did not,” said Amezcua, responding to Vazquez’s remarks about the library’s importance to his youth. “I’m still a very successful woman. I did go to the recreation center and I did a lot of other things. I had positive contact with the police and negative contact.”

Amezcua described the opposition to the PAAL program as anti-police: 

“You have some who don’t want PAAL because it’s the police. Let’s cut all the B.S. out – it’s the police. There are people up here who think the police are the problem.” 

Both of the program’s existing centers provide after-school homework assistance, physical fitness training, back-to-school shoes for kids in need, and athletic activities.

Some came to PAAL’s defense in public comments, like Irma Jauregui, a self-described 43-year resident of South Main Street who was vocal about the fire station back when an even older City Council, under former Mayor Miguel Pulido, tried to sell the building with little public discussion. 

“I visited that place on McFadden four times. I will not support something I’m not fully aware of how successful it is,” Jauregui said.

Sarmiento’s spouse, Victor Payan, in his own remarks told council members the community doesn’t need “a space where police indoctrinate our children.”

“The only option is to table this agenda item until we can come together, or you’ll see more of these,” Payan said, pointing to a sign Sarmiento had raised:

“SAPD is not your PAAL.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jessie Lopez voted against the fire station.

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