By Helen Afrasiabi, California Health Report
Santa Ana lacks the abundant land and monetary muscle of its more affluent neighbors like Irvine, but the city isn’t compromising when it comes to providing a comparable quality of life. With the Santa Ana River Trail project — one of the city’s transformation efforts — city staff capitalize on creativity and resources to give Santa Ana the livability enjoyed by those master-planned communities bordering it.
The project will eventually create a continuous, two-way, paved asphalt walking and bike path along the river across each municipality it crosses. Although bearing Santa Ana’s name, the river originates in San Bernardino, emptying into the ocean in Huntington Beach. Individual cities are taking charge of their section of the river, beautifying the land surrounding it and providing access to the trail.
Since 2006, when the city of Santa Ana adopted its own vision plan for the project, it has had to work under the limitations unique to itself and other older cities that have been built out. Unlike newer areas having vacant parcels to build on according to a master planning and zoning regulations, Santa Ana is primarily working with previously developed land, some of which it owns and other parcels owned by the county. Progress has been at the mercy of available funding and the ability to acquire the lands surrounding the riverbed.
“Santa Ana is short of open space. As much as we try, we either don’t have the money or the property to acquire,” said Ron Ono, the City of Santa Ana Parks and Recreation Department’s Administrative Services manager. “We thought, here’s an opportunity to beautify the concrete area surrounding the river with landscaping, creating open space in a public place.”
While Ono and his team have been successful in securing a variety of grants, there simply aren’t enough of them available at any given time to complete the project without interruption.
“We’re continually looking for grants to apply for. We’re strapped, but so are the state and feds. The [Recreational Trails] grant is drying up next year,” Ono said of money he has counted on so far. The good luck Ono and his team have had was when it came to acquiring county-owned parcels surrounding the river in Santa Ana. Seeing the value of the project, the county has agreed upon a 30-year lease of its land to Santa Ana at $1 per year.
“Our target is two acres per thousand people. That is the standard for places like Anaheim and Yorba Linda, and that is what our standard is for Santa Ana” said Ono. Currently, Ono says, the city averages about .9 acres per thousand people.
There is also attention given in the plan to how the socio-economic factors have long been a culprit in a sedentary and stagnant lifestyle.
“The goal is to accommodate all populations in Santa Ana, including those within short distance,” Ono said, referring to the residents in the mostly dilapidated neighborhoods along the river. Among the most salient design implements are access points tucked into these neighborhoods, mostly in the form of parks which provide an entrance onto the trail. These access points play a crucial role in getting residents out of their homes, as proximity eliminates the need for driving- a potential obstacle for many of these residents.
Eleven year old Aaron Gomez, a resident of the neighborhood adjacent to Riverview Golf Course and Park, walks there two to three times a week with his uncle Jose Ramirez to ride his skateboard and play after school. He uses the park almost exhaustively, recognizing his love of everything there including the basketball courts, batting cages, room to walk his dog. He also gets on the trail to go practice on his skateboard on the river bed.
Gomez, whose parents both work, says that if it were not for Riverview, his choices are slim.
“If I were home I’d be shooting BB guns in the yard,” Gomez said, citing that the alternative would be doing the same at a friend’s house instead.
Residents are already using the space that’s been renovated. The park and trail are peppered with adults and children playing, walking, biking and some even doing homework in Riverview Park. The reaction to the changes in their surroundings is one of appreciation and satisfaction.
Nearby resident Steve Preciado and his eight-year-old daughter, Faith, are out at least twice a week pitching softball in the batting cages. While nearby Morrison Park is another option they use from time to time, the Preciados seem to gravitate towards Riverview for simple things.
“The bathrooms are clean, and there are lights here,” Faith Preciado says. Steve Preciado adds his family uses the newly paved trail up to three times a month to bike the ten-mile stretch all the way to the beach.
“This is the only thing nearby like it,” Steve said.
Ono makes no secret of the fact that giving home values in the area a boost is one of the goals of the river trail project.
“We’ve always said that parks will always increase property values,” Ono said, adding that a boost is something those houses comprising the river’s surrounding neighborhoods can use. The revitalization along the river is deliberate means of targeting this problem, he says.
Since the revision, more homeowners seem interested in sprucing up their own property, Ono said.
“What used to be an abandoned railroad right of way, since trail went in, has become a really attractive place.” Ono said.
“We’re seeing lots of clean-up, painting and planting being done on properties now that they’ve seen what’s being done behind their homes.”
On any given afternoon, the trail is peppered with members from a cross-section of the community, ranging from parents with toddlers to school children with backpacks using the trail as a thoroughfare to get home. A completion date, however, is anyone’s guess.
“There is no estimated time of delivery, it will happen as funds and property become available,” Ono said, adding that upon completion the trail will connect without interruption to the city of Costa Mesa.
The important thing, Ono says, is the results he’s seen even at this stage of completion.
“We’ve gotten more people coming out of their homes now,” Ono said.