Neighbors gathered on Monday evening at Alex Lopez’s 100-year-old home beneath the shadow of Placentia’s iconic “All America City” water tower. They all shared concerns about how the city’s “revitalization” plan for its small, but historic Old Town Santa Fe barrio could impact them. Anchored by a Metrolink Station and 253-space parking structure set to be built by October 2019, city officials are hoping to attract new development to the area, including in the surrounding neighborhoods where residents fear rezoning will pave the way for multistory, mixed-use buildings to cast new, unwanted shade over their homes.
“I just hang up on phone calls now whenever it’s always an agent making an offer to buy my house,” Arlene Stewart, an 82-year-old homeowner said at the meeting. The calls started ringing at the beginning of the year. She recently voiced her concerns with Joseph Lambert, Placentia’s Development Director, in person. “I’m not going to sell my house. I’m going to die here!” she said.
The group is small, but counts Arturo Sandoval among its ranks. He lives in a big two-story home near Old Town Placentia thanks to the success of the legendary family-owned El Farolito in the area targeted for revitalization. Lopez sifted through the plan’s paperwork for over an hour in getting everybody ready to speak out at city council the following day.
When time came for the first reading of the Old Town Placentia Revitalization Plan at council on Tuesday, concerned residents listened attentively to Lambert’s presentation. The city official shifted through slides on proposed changes to the area that’d make it a statewide destination in the best of hopes. A summary of public comments from twenty community meetings noted that Old Town Placentia is perceived as “unsafe,” needed to look “cleaner” and add more entertainment options. Brea and Santa Ana served as model downtown areas to emulate.
“We would like to retain that Main Street character yet enhance it,” Lambert said, “[and] in some cases, encourage property owners to bring facades back to their original condition.” The plan includes an option that could permanently shut down Santa Fe Street to create a large pedestrian zone and streetscape improvements. Private development estimates for the revitalization plan range from the conservative $159 million to the expected $217 million, with none of the funding slated to come from Placentia’s general fund. The city is looking into grants and other funding mechanisms for associated costs that come with the proposed downtown do over.
In the world of Orange County downtowns, few get more overlooked than Old Town Santa Fe. Nowadays, the compact mix of walkable streets, picturesque buildings, and history is home to mostly Mexican-owned businesses including iconic restaurants like Tlaquepaque and 301 Cafe. So little surprise that city poobahs have marked the area for gentrification for decades. Fourteen years ago, the Weekly exposed the $440 million Orange County Gateway Development Initiative (OCGDI) tied to the OnTrac project that sought to redevelop downtown with new businesses, restaurants and housing, but turned into a conflict of interest free-for-all failure. It came under a wider gang injunction “safety-zone” two years ago, one that activists warned was a prelude to gentrification.
Through it all, mostly Mexican residents with deep roots in the surrounding neighborhoods raised hell and told city officials to leave their homes alone. This time around, the dissent sounds all too familiar. “Although I’m for the beautification of the area, I’m against the current plan,” Lopez told the council on Tuesday. “We stand to lose privacy, comfort and peace of mind.”
Residents shared concerns about enduring parking nightmares and the rumblings of construction projects. “I was really excited about the redevelopment [until] I saw that now it’s including the Main Street and Alta Vista residential area,” Sandoval said. He’s lived on South Main Street for 43 years and did the whole “live work” thing before it was hip, taking short walks to shifts at El Farolito.
As a downtown business owner, Sandoval attended community meetings over the past two years regarding the revitalization plan where he claims there never was any mention of rezoning that could affect his neighborhood. “I feel I was lied to,” he told the council.
While nobody is yet decrying gentrification and an incoming hipster invasion, other residents aired fears of losing their homes to eminent domain, giving city officials an easy point to ponce on.
“This does not enable the city in any way, shape, or form, the ability to take property,” city administrator Damien Arrula said. “The plan itself will raise property values.” City officials also noted eminent domain powers dissolved alongside redevelopment agencies in 2012. But if neighbors take offers to sell their home like those already blitzing Stewart to do, the residential area will change. Lambert mentioned earlier in the meeting that a proposed rezoning overlay gave residents the option to “hook into” a larger mixed-use development with retail storefronts encouraged to face alleys or Bradford Street.
After concluding discussion, the council voted to adopt the first reading with a second and final vote slated for next week. “The alternative is we do nothing,” councilman Ward Smith said, who previously served as the city’s police chief. “That neighborhood looks like it has looked for the last couple of decades—and I don’t mean that in a negative light.”
Downtown Placentia residents vow to continue meeting until then. “Where will the city be getting the funding to begin the project?” Lopez asks. “If we get some kind of bill for infrastructure improvements, where will some of my elderly neighbors who are retired or living on limited incomes come up with the money to pay for such improvements? It seems as if we’ve been told to hurry up and wait.”