Wrong Side of the Tracks

South Placentia railroaded into development

Photo by Gustavo ArellanoThe way the Placentia City Council pitches it, their plan to revitalize the city's south end will transform the small burb into the next Corona del Mar—except for the emerald ocean part.

The $440 million Orange County Gateway Development Initiative (OCGDI) would bring in hotels, businesses, entertainment complexes, restaurants, museums—all around a proposed Metrolink station—not to mention millions upon millions of samoleans in tourist cash.


But city planners, elected officials and developers are not mentioning the unmentionable: the OCGDI would displace, disappear and eradicate most of South Placentia and its generations-old mix of working-class Latino businesses, restaurants and residences.

City officials and developers have for years targeted the area south of the Burlington, Northern & Santa Fe railroad tracks—the line that divides Placentia's northern, wealthy half from the south. Eager builders found the perfect opportunity to implement their vision when residents north of the tracks began complaining in 2002 that blaring train whistles —silent for decades but blown anew in 2001—were disrupting civic tranquility (see Dave Wielenga's "Train in Vain," Dec. 13, 2002). Quickly unveiled by the City Council was a multimillion-dollar plan known as the "Quiet Zone," which would lower the tracks, erect overpasses and block off residential streets so that the train's whistles would annoy only slumbering hobos.

Residents accepted the "Quiet Zone" plan with little dissent. But city officials soon—and without public discussion—piggybacked onto that proposal the grand vision of the OCGDI. The City Council unanimously approved OCGDI in April. And residents are upset.

"The city appointed an advisory commission to work with redevelopment issues in Old Town," third-generation Placentian Bill Zavala says in reference to a row of buildings on Bradford and Santa Fe next to the train tracks that stand where the city was founded. "They were supposed to let us know about everything regarding redevelopment. But they never said anything about the OCGDI. When we found out, we were all surprised—not to mention angry."

Zavala joined about 180 Placentia residents who gathered Sept. 18 in the musty Valencia High School auditorium to hear city officials sell OCGDI to the citizenry. Most everyone lasted through the rancorous four-and-a-half-hour meeting, which was interrupted by applause whenever a resident verbally lambasted council members.

Although the council advertised the special session as a "town hall meeting," the Thursday gathering was really an opportunity for South Placentia residents to hear the imminent indictment, sentencing, eulogy and obituary of their neighborhood. For about an hour, city officials and out-of-town developers praised the OCGDI, uttering statements such as "You've got to deal with [redevelopment]. You know these things are coming, so you better do something about it"; they even went through a point-by-point examination of eminent domain.

Residents unleashed their collective fury after the city's presentation. One businessman disputed the city's claim that the area slated for redevelopment brought in only $200,000 in tax revenue per year, noting that his own small business alone paid $40,000 in various taxes. Some wondered why the council hadn't alerted the advisory commission it had formed about the OCGDI.

But citizens threw most of their questions at OCGDI master developer Roy D. DePaul. One resident noted that DePaul's company, TOD Properties, hadn't even been registered as a California corporation when the council unanimously appointed it on April 15 to serve as the master developer for the project. The California Secretary of State, in fact, didn't certify TOD Properties as a business until July 16—three months after city documents boasted that DePaul's and associates "is a recently formed corporation of seasoned developers uniquely qualified to be the master developer for this corridor initiative."

The city has been less than forthcoming about DePaul's qualifications or why he was the only developer to bid on the project in the first place. A due-diligence package revealing the investors in TOD and DePaul's developing background is about two weeks late, and DePaul said at the Thursday meeting he needs more time.

But residents have already done the background check for the city, discovering a slew of tax liens, civil lawsuits and failed businesses associated with DePaul. They read off a list of DePaul's previous transgressions to the stone-faced City Council with glee.

Zavala asked the city if they had done a personal background check on DePaul before the contract was awarded. The council, in a word, said no and that they'd find out after DePaul submitted the due-diligence package. That lack of oversight doesn't surprise Zavala.

"The city's entire pitch is like that of a snake-oil salesman," says Zavala, who plans to rally South Placentia residents against the OCGDI in the coming weeks. "The salesman comes in and claims, 'Yes, my tonic will cure everything. It's great, and it's cheap! Here, take some.' But it just turns out to be alcohol—and expensive."

Next week: the mysterious Mr. DePaul.