The park across from Costa Mesa City Hall and the Orange County Fairgrounds is no longer poised to be the site of a housing complex for the homeless, officials said Tuesday, apparently bowing to pressure from neighbors and facing potential deed restrictions.
"We have opted not to pursue this site right now," Assistant city CEO Rick Francis said. "We are hopeful that another suitable location can be found soon. The City Council and city staff remain committed to finding solutions to address the issue of homelessness in our community, and we look forward to receiving input from our citizens."
In a Dec. 10 study session, the City Council had recommended using Civic Center Park — a 2.52-acre grassy expanse along Fair Drive that contains a few dozen trees and one park bench — for the project, which could contain as many as 50 units.
Soon after the decision, though, homeowners associations from nearby condominiums began rallying against the idea, contending that such a project would harm their neighborhood, pose a threat to their children's safety and negatively affect property values. They passed out fliers during the Snoopy House holiday event at City Hall, started a Facebook page and went door to door to drum up backing.
Neighbors also said Tuesday that a public relations professional living in the Newport Landing town home complex was going to lend some expertise for a campaign. The 330-unit Monticello complex was also ready to get its homeowners association attorney involved if necessary.
Francis said Costa Mesa is still looking into the land's deed, which may restrict how the property could be used.
The federal government gave the land where City Hall and Civic Center Park are now located to the city in the years following the end of World War II, after the 1,330-acre Santa Ana Army Air Base was decommissioned. That decades-old land transaction may limit what goes in the park, Francis said.
Until earlier this year, Civic Center Park was also the chosen site of a 50,000-square-foot library, but those plans were scrapped.
The city's most recent announcement did not appear to take Civic Center Park completely off the table. It said the land is "no longer being considered as a primary option" for the homeless housing.
"I am thrilled. This is a great first step," said Jeff Ledbetter, a member of Newport Landing's homeowners association board. "Although the park is no longer the primary option, it hasn't been ruled out completely. Our community still needs to take steps to ensure that Civic Center Park remains exactly that — a park.
"Moving forward, I would love to see park improvements made so that it is no longer viewed as 'underutilized' and is never again considered for such usage."
However, Becks Heyhoe, a local homeless advocate and director of the Churches Consortium, an alliance of churches predominantly in Costa Mesa, said she is afraid this move will put the entire project in jeopardy.
"It was very obvious during the study session that the location was the one that was financially feasible," she said. "Right now, I'm really disheartened, but I will still hold out hope. Miracles do happen."
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said he agreed with the decision.
"The constraints and timing warrant a more extensive search for opportunities with other locations," he said.
Added Councilwoman Wendy Leece, "We listened to the residents who live nearby. Overwhelmingly, they were opposed to that site."
The other options include putting the housing complex elsewhere in the city, converting a motel into homeless housing with support services and acquiring apartment complexes throughout the city to utilize them for the homeless.
On Monday, city officials announced two meetings, on Jan. 15 and 16, for discussion of the project, which they stressed is not a homeless shelter, a shelter for the mentally ill or a one-stop mental health center that will attract homeless into Costa Mesa from around the county.
Both sessions start at 6 p.m. and will be held at City Hall, 77 Fair Drive.
At the Dec. 10 study session, the council was presented with a variety of publicly owned sites to be considered for the project, including the city's two community gardens and the Bark Park, the federally owned Army Reserve base and the state-owned Fairview Developmental Center.
Francis said at the time that both the state and federal governments did not want to use their land for Costa Mesa's homeless housing effort.
Four of the council members — Councilman Gary Monahan was absent — then edged toward recommending Civic Center Park as the most viable of the bunch.
In April, the council chose Santa Ana-based Mercy House Living Centers and San Diego-based Wakeland Housing and Development Corp. to collaborate on a plan for the project. Mayor Jim Righeimer, an unpaid board member for Mercy House, recused himself from the vote and December's study session.
Leece, who volunteers on behalf of the homeless, said fixing the problem would take "an army of Costa Mesans." The focus should be on the 130 or so homeless people who have ties and connections to Costa Mesa, she said.
—Daily Pilot staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.