City Council voted 3-2 (Dunlap, Whitaker, and Jung-“yes;” Silva and Zahra-“no”) at the April 20 meeting to not extend an exclusive negotiating agreement (ENA) with nonprofit Renewable Farms for development of Union Pacific Park with an aquaponic farm and event center with publicly accessible recreational space.
The 1.7-acre Union Pacific Park, located near Downtown (121 W. Truslow Ave.) was established in 2003, five years after the City purchased the land from Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR). During construction of the park, the Department of Toxic and Substance Control (DTSC) found contamination in the soil.
After a lawsuit, the City won a settlement that made Sempra Energy and UPRR responsible for funding the clean-up and remediation of the park site, which they did.
After the park was cleaned up and opened, neighbors complained about the park being used for criminal activity, and it was closed and fenced off in 2009, and remains so today.
In November 2019, the City entered into an 18-month Exclusive Negotiating Agreement with nonprofit Renewable Farms to establish an aquaponic farm to provide public educational and community programs and grow free food for local families. The operations and programs of the farm would be funded by an event center that would host weddings and other private events. There would be no cost to the City.
Renewable Farms currently operates a facility that provides these amenities in Anaheim. Renewable Farms planned to work with caterer 24 Carrots to hold a minimum of 100 events per year, including weddings on the site, to provide funding for the non-profit, although no additional parking was planned for the neighborhood.
Though some progress had been made, including drawings of a tentative layout of the park and a $15,000 grant from St. Jude, development of the site was delayed due to COVID-19, and Renewable Farms requested a 6-month extension to their agreement with the City.
On a 3-2 vote, Council chose not to extend the agreement, which expires on May 4.
Councilmember Jesus Silva, who wanted to extend the agreement, said, “I really like the partnership we would have with the schools, the restaurants, the city, and veterans—I think it [Renewable Farms] could be a great win.”
Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap, who voted to not extend the agreement, expressed frustration that more had not been accomplished in the 18 months.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in the office virtually every day since the pandemic started, working to raise funds and to acquire property,” Dunlap said. “And so, I think for us to grant the applicant here tonight an extension would be doing the community a disservice.”
Dunlap said he would like to see the City put out a request for proposals (RFP), “so we can have multiple vendors apply and figure out something that’s really going to work for the community.”
Mayor Whitaker, who also voted to not extend the agreement with Renewable Farms, said that whatever happens at Union Pacific Park should fit within the larger “specific plan” that is being developed for that area.
Whitaker was referring to a proposed “Rail District” specific plan that was presented at a March 15 study session, and encompasses a 30-acre area south of the BNSF (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) Railway right of way, Truslow Ave./Valencia Dr., Harbor Blvd., and the eastern edge of the 2014 Liberty Walk-housing project east of Euclid St. The plan which is expected to come before the Council for approval in the coming months, is expected to include multiple high density residential structures to the west of the park.
Tony Bushala, who owns about 30% of the properties in proposed district, including the historic Elephant Packing house next to Union Pacific Park, urged Council not to extend the ENA with Renewable Farms. Bushala, who previously complained that the City had stolen the name Rail District from the Fullerton Rail District plan he had previously presented to them (www.fullertonraildistrict.com), cited a lack of parking for Renewable Farms’ events. He recalled that when he proposed holding events at the Elephant Packing House he was told that he would have to provide his own parking. “I don’t think it’s fair for city government to pick winners and losers,” Bushala said.
Director of Community Development Matt Foulkes declined to answer a question from The Observer (asked during public comment) about whether the City’s proposed Rail District Specific Plan would have provided parking for Renewable Farms events.
Tony and George Bushala (of Bushala Brothers Inc.) are frequent contributors to City Council campaigns. In the 2020 election, Tony contributed $3,000 to the campaign of Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap, and George gave $3,000 to the campaign of Fred Jung. Tony is also the major funder of a political action committee (PAC) called Fullerton Taxpayers for Reform which in the last election cycle spent thousands of dollars in mailers, yard signs, and Facebook ads supporting the campaigns of Jung and Whitaker, and attacking their opponents.
Whitaker and others emphasized that a proposal by Renewable Farms could still be considered, along with plans submitted by others.
Councilmember Fred Jung said he thought the Anaheim farm was beautiful, but that it was also gated from the public. Aaron Flora, head of Renewable Farms, acknowledged that a fence would be required around the Fullerton site to prevent thievery.
Jung, who also voted not to extend the agreement with Renewable Farms, said, “Renewable Farms in all its forms is so admirable, but it’s not a public park; it’s a public subsidy. I encourage the community—please give us time. We will find a solution for this. I just don’t believe this is it.”
Some residents of the neighborhood surrounding Union Pacific Park spoke in favor of the Renewable Farms plan.
“I am in favor of this development. I’m very excited,” a woman who lives across from the park said. “This park has been closed for many years, and we’re looking forward to seeing this green space preserved for our city. It’s not a very big space, but we can do so much with it.”
“I live off of Truslow, and I think that this is a really good idea,” one neighbor said.
“Investment in parks and community spaces in low-income communities of color is essential,” another resident said. “The land at Union Pacific Park should serve the community it was meant to serve. This area is densely populated therefore it should have more community space for its residents. In order for this area to thrive, we need the promise of organized and supervised activities.”
A resident named Elizabeth said she liked that the project would serve low income families and provide healthy food.
Ilse Miranda said, “I like the idea of the project” and suggested it could be like the Maple Community Center with after-school programs, mentoring, and other programs for the youth.
Others, like Ed Nunez, expressed concern about a lack of parking with the plan. “There is no parking right now on Valencia and Truslow,” he said. “If you have an event on a weekend, where will the people who live there park?”
A resident named Joseph said, “I don’t understand how public space is now going to be turned over to a financial investor running event centers. To me, that’s not the intent of what that space should be. Why can’t we leave it as a park?”
Councilmember Ahmad Zahra, who represents District 5 (south Fullerton), spoke in favor of the agreement with Renewable Farms, and said that parking and other concerns could have been addressed during the negotiation process with Renewable Farms.
“One of the most important things for me is to make sure the community is involved in all of this, and the outcome ends up being a benefit to the community as a whole,” Zahra said, prior to the council vote. “South Fullerton in general and Truslow in particular have not been the most looked after neighborhoods, and I think this is something that would revitalize the neighborhood.”
Aaron Flora, founder of Renewable Farms, said, “We look for space to bring life to it, to bring communities in. We work with vets, disabled adults, homeless, lots of children, lots of schools. Everything we grow, we give away to the community. As a non-profit, we’re just there to support the community. We do events on the weekends, and that supports the non-profit.”
With the 3-2 council vote, the agreement with Renewable Farms will expire on May 4.
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