Civic Center Park in Costa Mesa was once destined to be the site of a gleaming, 50,000-square-foot central library.
But with those ambitious plans scrapped — much to library boosters' dismay — the 2.52-acre grassy plot is poised to fulfill a far different goal: getting the city's homeless into a supportive environment.
Three Costa Mesa City Council members agreed Tuesday to look into using the park for a housing development that would aid the homeless. The site could contain up to 50 units. City staff will examine the issue and report back to the council.
The recommendation came after a city task force suggested establishing permanent housing, with support services, for Costa Mesa's homeless population.
Mayor Jim Righeimer recused himself from the informal vote and discussion because he is an unpaid member of the board at Mercy House Living Centers, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that is a part of a team behind the homeless project.
In April, the council chose Mercy House and its nonprofit partner, San Diego-based Wakeland Housing and Development Corp., to collaborate on a plan.
"I think we're at a defining moment in our city's history," said Councilwoman Wendy Leece. "We've been moving this mountain for a long time, and a lot of people have been pushing."
Added Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, "It is a monumental decision. If we get it wrong, it's our legacy."
The council ultimately turned down other housing sites for the homeless offered by city staff: a portion of Lions Park, the parking lot of the senior center, the two community gardens and the Bark Park.
Assistant City CEO Rick Francis said county land at 1100 Bristol St., the state-owned Fairview Developmental Center and federal land along Newport Boulevard containing an Army Reserve base are not available.
He quipped that before any housing could be built at the dog park, "We imagine there is going to be quite a bit of soil remediation."
Civic Center Park contains a few dozen trees and a few park benches. Francis, who lives nearby, called it "fairly underutilized."
He said people walking their dogs is "pretty much the extent of the use at that park."
Councilwoman Sandy Genis urged the city to quickly reach out to neighbors and other members of the public to learn their views.
Francis said, "This one of those projects that we just can't shove down people's throats. We have to get the information out there."
Abutting the park is an Arco gas station, apartments along Clearbrook Lane and the Fairview Village condominium complex. The Police and Fire departments are across the street, as is the Orange County Fairgrounds.
The council also heard other options, including buying a motel or several small apartment complexes and converting them to homeless supportive housing.
The city's financial consultant, Kathleen Head, said those ideas were less financially feasible, however.
The council members also said they were worried about rushing the process to meet a Feb. 28 deadline that could help the city acquire up to $3 million in state Mental Health Services Act funding for the project.
Mercy House Executive Director Larry Haynes, a Costa Mesa resident, said his organization is ready to undertake its goal of getting the homeless off Costa Mesa streets by Christmas 2014.
The project would rely on volunteer help and aid from programs at Cal State Fullerton and nearby Vanguard University that deal with homelessness, he said.