Residential buildings as tall as seven and five stories will rise from a defunct retail space in northern Orange County, after all sides of a statewide housing debate collided in Buena Park on Tuesday.

Buena Park City Council members unanimously approved plans to build 1,300 units from one to three bedrooms, as well as studios and three-story townhomes, at the Buena Park Mall’s old Sears property on the corner of La Palma and Stanton Avenues.

It comes as cities across Orange County must collectively zone for over 180,000 new homes under state-mandated housing numbers – 75,000 of which have to be designated for low and very low income people. 

It’s been dubbed the Village at Buena Park. 

The development could add to the city’s population by nearly 3,000 residents.

The decision came after scores of public speakers zoned in on the proposal from different vantage points — concerns that have become familiar in such fights around new housing projects in California.

Supporters said it would fortify regional housing supply, bring prices down and housing opportunities up at a time where soaring rents force many adults to live with their parents as working professionals. 

They described opponents as people who already owned property and secured their futures.

Opponents called it a “monstrosity” – a “cookie-cutter” development bringing crime and traffic congestion – and argued they weren’t against housing on the site if scaled down.

A view of the old Sears building at the Buena Park Mall, which has been used as a temporary Spirit Halloween store in recent years. June 26, 2023. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Some also questioned why a considerably smaller slice of the development would be truly “affordable.”

One hundred and seventy-six of the project’s total units are slated to be deed-restricted affordable housing, with 5% restricted to low-income households and 10% restricted to moderate-income households for a period of 55-years.

Under the state-mandated housing numbers, Buena Park needs nearly 9,000 affordable homes by the end of decade. 

In Orange County, a person living alone and making less than $80,400 a year is considered low income, according to income brackets from the state Housing and Community Development Department.

A person living alone and making less than $107,000 a year is considered moderate income.

“We don’t fault anyone for having concerns or questions,” said Jamas Gwilliams, one member of the developer team known as Merlone Geier Partners.  “I understand the reticence to just accept numbers from the developer.”

Gwilliams said his team already reduced the project “as originally studied,” even though the site was zoned for much higher density than they were proposing. 

And finally, City Council members went to bat for a project they said would incentivize new businesses to come to town, bring Buena Park closer to their state-mandated housing quotas, and even contribute more open green space.

The project would contribute a total of 3.5 acres of open space. That includes a one-acre park that developers say will be privately owned and managed. 

Developers publicly promised on Tuesday that the park will be accessible to the public.

But even with council members’ support, questions for developers lingered. 

Councilmember Jose Trinidad Castañeda, for example, asked why developers didn’t go further in scale since the city’s zoning allowed it. 

He called the project’s size rather “minimal” – “1,300 units doesn’t scratch at the 8,900 units we’re required to build.”

“It’s true, we could have proposed a much more dense project,” Gwilliam said. “If our sole intent was to ram something through.”

One of the most mentioned concerns: Traffic congestion in a city between freeways, where residents on errands contend with theme park goers on the road near Knott’s Berry Farm.

“One of the concerns we’ve heard is that this is going to add more traffic,” Gwilliam said, adding his team concluded from a study that, “if we were to lease the property as current commercial use, there is a greater average daily trip outcome than the proposed residential use.”

Critical residents weren’t convinced. 

“Common sense disagrees with those calculations and conclusions of that study,” said one resident, Nancy Castaneda.

Another concern was one shared by both critics and one council supporter, based on the visual renderings the team displayed:

Why did the architecture seem uninspired?

“This community deserves a beautiful development — this seems rather cold and sterile,” said City Councilmember Susan Sonne. “There’s a lot of angles and lines and dark colors. I know architecture these days has eliminated all ornamentation … is there any opportunity for … something that doesn’t look like it could be set down anywhere in the world?”

The response from Gwilliam:

“We’ve seen much, much worse.”

From varying building heights to the inclusion of courtyards, Gwilliam argued the building wasn’t designed to look boxy or uniform.

He called the notion “subjective.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Another question: 

What would happen to the weekly farmer’s market at that location?

“Our intent is to accommodate the farmers market,” Gwilliam said. “It may move around as we go through phasing and staging required but the goal is to continue accommodating them.”

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