A new public place where one can think, stretch and walk – or watch Great Blue Heron feed off the native frogs and fish – is now closer to reality along the Santa Ana River, in a town that’s gasping for more open green space.
The park would also be a boon for the marshes propping aquatic species, which in turn support “watchable” wildlife like snowy egrets and migrating ducks, in keeping with Santa Ana officials’ new formally-written vision.
City Council members’ commitment came in a March 7 discussion – voicing support a non-action resolution that pledged not to renew the city’s lease with the River View Golf Course by Edna Park and Alona Street, which expires at the start of 2026.
For years, city officials have been grappling with their town’s lacking park coverage in proportion to its population — one of the largest in all of Orange County.
But some sort of change might be on the way, as city leaders look for any way they can increase open space access, including the Santa Ana River where the Willowick Golf Course also sits further south.
The text of the new resolution commits to converting the River View Golf Course to parkland and “other uses that retain its nature as open space.”
Two council members – Jessie Lopez and Johnathan Ryan Hernandez – came forward with the idea, along with the office of Congressman Lou Correa, who was named often enough that night that one council member proposed bringing the item back for a vote in April when he’d be in town.
For Correa, the park is part of a larger effort to stave off what remains for him a lingering concern:
Between the 1980s and early aughts, county officials mulled over an extension to State Route 57 with a toll road running above the river.
Correa vocally opposed the plan, and spearheaded the creation of the Santa Ana River Conservancy as a branch of the state Coastal Conservancy, which aims to enhance recreational resources along the waterway.
And to return the river to a more natural state.
The result, he said in a Wednesday phone interview, could fundamentally change daily life for central Orange County.
“I want to remove some of that cement and make it beautiful.”
Officials say the golf course already has all the things a new city park would need: Suitable parking, management offices, restrooms, irrigation, and maintenance structures.
“It’s really almost a turnkey operation,” Correa said.
The surrounding area, the resolution adds, is a soft bottom channel that feeds the local groundwater table and prevents salt water intrusion, and a more natural use could benefit the OC Water District with additional supply. The OC Flood Control District also owns land in the area.
Perhaps most notably, the River View area highlights how concrete “can be removed on other downstream sections of the flood control channel to create additional parkland and habitat,” the city text reads.
And on a citywide level, the park conversion would move officials closer to their goal of providing three acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents – a towering objective for a largely built-out, densely populated and park-poor populace.
“One of the many lessons from the ongoing pandemic is really the need for the city to prioritize open space … for public health reasons, mental health reasons, so that our residents can have options of spaces they can go and congregate and celebrate birthdays and just hang out and live,” said Lopez.
Hernandez called it a chance to build a park big enough to span multiple council wards “and bring so many families together.”
Councilmember David Penaloza said it would be of comfort to the golf-course’s adjacent residents – and their windows.
Though he and other council members called for other funding sources to pay for its conversion, namely out of state and federal partners.
“We can advocate and we can cheerlead, but I think it would be important to see some funding by that,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra during the discussion.
Proponents say they’ve found funding in the Santa Ana River Conservancy Program, as well as the State Coastal Conservancy, as noted in the park resolution.
Meanwhile, park space has comprised a smaller slice of Santa Ana’s own taxpayer budget, most of which goes to the police department.
Parks account for about 4% of city land, according to research by the Trust for Public Lands.
Other areas remain deficient.
Bacerra pointed to one such area between 17th Street and Warner Avenue.
“And I hope that we would be increasing park space in a ward or wards that have a need for parks, because I think Ward 3 and I’m very proud to say even Ward 4 down on the south end — we have an abundance of park space,” he said.