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Farmland Likely to Become Upscale Santa Ana Houses

Development: City Council to consider 156-unit plan where there would also be a cathedral and school.

October 06, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In time-honored Orange County fashion, the last large piece of farmland in Santa Ana will probably give way soon to a gated community, joined by a cathedral, high school and YMCA.

The 90-acre parcel on the city's southern flank is mostly furrowed dirt. The yellow clapboard church not far from the property hints at a lifestyle nearly erased in a county once heavily agrarian.

The development plan for the homes, to be considered by the City Council on Monday night, calls for houses of four or more bedrooms, more like fast-growing South County, with prices expected to top $600,000, a big stretch for most Santa Ana residents.

In an area where the median home price is about $372,000, the 2000 census shows that 88% of the city's households have incomes of less than $50,000. But city officials say the higher-priced homes are important for the mix in a town that too often gets a bad rap for being a sea of poverty.

Planning Commissioner Glenn Mondo said the development can provide "move-up housing for people who want to stay in the city, or attract people from outside."

Santa Ana already has plenty of affordable housing, said Mondo, who is among the majority of planning commissioners who approved the project and forwarded it to the City Council for the final OK.

"We are already doing more than our fair share," Mondo said of affordable housing. "This is a diverse city and we need a diverse housing stock."

The homes will replace lima beans that have long been the yield on the old Armstrong Ranch. The land encompassing the homes and the other projects is bordered by MacArthur Boulevard, Greenville Street, Alton Avenue and Bear Street.

Tustin resident Barbara Armstrong Phillips said the farm was developed by her grandfather, a Civil War veteran who helped build the yellow clapboard Greenville Country Church, the longest continuously operating Protestant church in Orange County.

The family farm once produced alfalfa, corn and tomatoes, then switched to lima beans. In 1931, the Armstrongs sold the 90-acre property to the Segerstrom farming family, Phillips said. The Segerstroms bought adjacent parcels in 1936 and 1955, said David Wilson, a spokesman for C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, which owns and operates South Coast Plaza.

If approved by the council as expected, developer Shea Homes plans to build 156 houses ranging from 3,100 to 3,800 square feet on lots of 6,000 square feet.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange is buying 16 acres in hopes of winning city approval for a cathedral with a 45,000-square-foot parish hall and 24,000-square-foot administration building.

The remaining land is expected to be the campus for Segerstrom High School, named for the family that developed much of south Santa Ana and north Costa Mesa. The Segerstrom company also plans to donate 2 acres for a YMCA.

There is widespread support for the housing plan, from the City Council to affordable-housing advocates who all say Santa Ana has done more than other area cities to provide low-cost housing.

"It's unfair to look at the City Council in the city of Santa Ana and ask for more affordable housing," said Helen Brown, president of Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., a Santa Ana nonprofit organization. Santa Ana "is housing the majority of the entire service sector for the county of Orange. I cannot rag on them for a few luxury homes. It's just one bean field."

Councilman Jose Solorio, who said he plans to vote for the project, lamented the extinction of the farmland, one of the last major pieces of undeveloped property in the city.

"It's a bit sad, but it is exciting that that large a parcel will have a new dynamic life that will impact our future forever," he said.

Only Planning Commissioner Chris Leo has gone on record opposing the project.

"The developer had submitted apartments, condominiums and attached homes; [the plan] ended up coming to us with none of that," Leo said. "Where are people going to live? I'm not even talking about low-income. I'm talking about firefighters, nurses, teachers. Not only are they good to have in the community, but they get involved in community activities. It's hard to conceive how we can allow construction of these kind of homes."

The property's zoning initially permitted development of multiple-family homes. But Cindy Nelson, deputy city manager for development services, said the provision was eliminated "because the council was only seeking to see single-family housing on the site."

"We can have areas for everybody," Nelson added.

Bob Yoder, Shea Homes vice president, said his company was open to building multiple-family dwellings, but went along with city officials' preferences. "You have to meet the objectives of the city."

Yoder, who builds so-called infill housing developments that are increasingly in demand in older cities, said he is convinced there are plenty of families who will buy the houses to be near their jobs and shopping. "We think the location is phenomenal because of the convenience."

If approved, construction could begin early next year, Yoder said.

Real estate agent Phil Schaefer, one of a number of agents who specialize in vintage homes in the city's higher-priced north end, said only a dozen or so Santa Ana residential properties have sold for more than $600,000 in the last 12 months. Still, he thinks people will snap up the Armstrong Ranch homes.

"They will sell because they are gated, they are near South Coast Plaza and they are new," Schaefer said.

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