Little park expected to pack a big punch in Santa Ana

Times Staff Writer

It may not be considered much elsewhere, but in densely packed Santa Ana, a new half-acre park is considered a major feat. The site, on public land, will be developed by Latino Health Access, a nonprofit organization that promotes health issues in the city.

In a city with tight budgets and less park acreage per resident than New York City, it took the group seven years of lobbying to win City Council approval to build the park.

Council members were initially uncertain how effective the park would be given its location: in the middle of a redevelopment project just blocks from downtown.


Now the park is scheduled to open in the fall.

The new park “was a great idea. It will really help the children,” said Jaqueline Torres, 27, who added that her 3-year-old niece will use the park. “There are so many kids in Santa Ana. Unfortunately most of our Hispanic families have parents who work a lot and the kids end up in gangs because they don’t have a place to play.”

Leah Fraser, policy director for Latino Health Access, said the park near East 4th and North Minter streets “is much needed in Santa Ana. We are going to create an asset for the community.

“But in terms of dealing with obesity and fitness on a wide scale, this park will not deal with it,” she said. “For us to make an impact, there needs to be a shift in what is the role of a school.”

She said her organization would pursue a plan to create a special assessment district to keep school grounds open in the afternoons and on weekends.

Fraser outlined the case for a park tax last week to members of the city’s neighborhood associations. A similar measure that would have paid for graffiti removal and park maintenance and cost $33 annually per homeowner, failed to get two-thirds voter approval in 2003.

In Santa Ana, some city officials and residents say the solution to the park shortage is to open the school grounds in the late afternoons and on the weekends.

“The school district [fields] should not be closed,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez. “That’s an injustice to the kids when we know how few parks there are here. Our kids are so enclosed in apartment complexes.”

District officials have limited access to school grounds because the fields “have been run down to dirt,” said James Miyashiro, chief of the Santa Ana Unified School District’s police department.

A handful of organizations have been allowed to use the fields. In April, the school district is expected to approve a policy that could include fees for usage.

Miyashiro said the fields could not handle more use without more money for maintenance and repairs. Latino Health Access officials say the assessment district would provide those funds.

Both New York and Chicago have four times the amount of park acreage per resident as Santa Ana. Anaheim has nearly double the parkland, with 1.9 acres for every 1,000 residents.

Santa Ana is also coping with the highest percentage of obese children among California’s largest cities, nearly 35%.

Peggy Chiu, of the national park advocacy group Trust for Public Land said special assessment districts for parks have been hard to sell to voters. Ballot measures for assessment districts to acquire or maintain parks in Claremont, Amador County and El Cerrito failed in 2006.

In the meantime, Latino Health Access is packing as much as it can into the half-acre park with a 2,000-square-foot community center for fitness and cooking classes, a basketball half-court, a “tot lot” and a walking path.

Under an agreement approved March 19 by the City Council, the city will lease the parcel for $2 a year for 20 years. The lease can be renewed twice, for a total of 20 additional years.

“In Irvine, a half-acre park wouldn’t make a difference,” Fraser said.

“But in a place with little, a half-acre park is huge.”