Whiting: Santa Ana working to be a downtown for the entire county
Whiting: Santa Ana working to be a downtown for the entire county
Demographics: 78.2 percent Latino, 10.5 percent Asian, 9.2 percent white, 3.6 two or more races
Source: U.S. Census
This is part of an ongoing series highlighting every Orange County city.
Santa Ana wants nothing less than to become the central gathering place for the entire county, and it may soon have the ingredients to pull that off.
Nearly bankrupt just three years ago, the idea may seem audacious, even silly. But times change. Fast.
There are nearly 3,000 housing units being built or in the pipeline. These include single-family homes, condos, apartments and lofts.
The downtown where some fear to tread – and let’s get over that silliness – has plans for everything from a trolley line to pedestrian-friendly public bathrooms to creating a hip 21st-century vibe.
“I want to make it,” City Manager David Cavazos says, “the heart of Orange County.”
It’s an ambitious goal for an area many still regard as a struggling ethnic enclave. But given the energy, enthusiasm and background of Cavazos, it’s a vision we might see before this decade is over.
Already, there are inroads that go beyond the city’s modest Artists Village. Over the weekend in Santa Ana’s downtown, hundreds of video gamers jammed into the debut event for what its owners call “North America’s first dedicated e-sportsfacility.”
Taking over 15,000 square feet in a century-old building, e-sports will typically be self-contained with a new interior catwalk allowing fans to watch the action on the floor below. But last weekend was different. With nearly 2,000 gamers and an estimated 1.5 million online, the event occupied a city street.
Cavazos says the agility to close a street for a hot event is critical to the downtown’s future. He adds he also plans to tear down the garage that blocks through traffic on Sycamore Street.
I’ve worked in Santa Ana for a quarter century. It is a safe, interesting city. But I also have witnessed plenty of unrealized efforts to turn around the city’s sleepy, aging downtown.
The Artists Village is a nice idea. And the few galleries are interesting. But the idea of artists injecting the necessary spice to make for a thriving downtown is dumb. It didn’t work in Detroit. And it won’t work in Santa Ana.
Yet there are things that could make the downtown dream a reality.
The city is the county seat. On weekdays, it is home to thousands of federal, state and county workers. The challenge is to keep those workers in Santa Ana after their workday ends.
But lifestyles are changing. According to studies and hopeful developers, the millennial generation prefers to skip long commutes, take public transportation or walk to work, and, once home, walk to shops and restaurants.
Drive down almost any major street in central Santa Ana and there is housing construction to allow just that sort of lifestyle. There also is the critical mass to keep things hopping.
Already, Santa Ana is the fourth-densest city in the nation, just behind New York, San Francisco and Boston. And with 335,000 people, Santa Ana also is a large city.
By the end of the decade, Cavazos says, the trolley will be in operation to help ferry people from Santa Ana’s train station, along Fourth Street and up Harbor Boulevard to Garden Grove.
He predicts the trolley will play a key role in revitalizing the city’s historic downtown.
DIMES ADD UP
As if to press a point there is no detail too small on the road to success, Cavazos picks up a paper wrapper on the sidewalk and discards it in a nearby trash bin. He gazes down Fourth Street, points out the city’s holiday decorations and mentions that tonight the city will celebrate its second holiday tree-lighting ceremony.
But the city manager’s comments aren’t just about sprucing up the city. They are about saving as much as possible so there is money left to improve what Cavazos calls “the quality of life.”
“We used to rent the decorations,” Cavazos says. “Now we own them. It’s cheaper.”
Strolling along Fourth Street, Cavazos also points out he has the downtown parking meters set up so when a car pulls out, the meter zeroes out any time remaining. In a city with a $ 476 million budget, it’s a seemingly innocuous amount of money and cheapskates like me like the free time.
Yet dollars add up, and Cavazos also is making a bold statement. Only in office two years, the city manager recently came under fire for raising downtown parking fees. Local merchants feared that the hike would scare away shoppers.
Cavazos points to parking spaces. It is 11 a.m. on a weekday. Every spot is filled. “We make $ 84,000 zeroing out these meters. That’s enough to keep the library open every Sunday.”
In time, Cavazos envisions street vendors and musicians on downtown sidewalks. Already, many restaurants in the area have outside tables. The citymanager welcomes more.
He says to attract people from outside the city, the area needs what he calls “character.”
There are architectural jewels in Santa Ana that alone are worth the visit. These include the 127-year-old Episcopal Church of the Messiah and its wood arches, as well as the art deco Masonic Temple building built in 1931.
Restored by the Church of Scientology, the old temple still has its original interior leaded doors, mahogany trim and chandeliers dripping with prisms.
There’s much more that indicates Santa Ana may be approaching prime time.
Cavazos walks down a narrow brick alleyway between two brick buildings. Black-painted ironwork offers a New Orleans flavor. A small bistro and wine bar, Robin’s Nest, advertises itself with a placard.
Small can add up to big impact, however. Last year, Santa Ana chefs dominated the Register’s 2014 Restaurant Awards. Ryan Adams of The North Left won for best chef. Nasera Munshi of Little Sparrow won for best pastry chef.
The city manager ducks into Wursthaus, where video gamers were invited over the weekend to try out the restaurant’s assortment of sausages and beers. At the moment, the place is quiet. Still, with the old brickwork that dominates much of downtown there’s a homey feel.
We drop by the 30,000-square-foot 4th Street Market, a cozy version of a food court where an eclectic mix of chefs prepare a variety of foods in their own kitchens. Across the way, the city manager points to a series of older buildings that new owners are converting to office and residential space.
“People are starting to invest in Santa Ana,” Cavazos says.
Of course, the transformation of Santa Ana goes far beyond the downtown.
Westfield MainPlace mall got a summer makeover with the addition of 24 Hour Fitness, Ashley Furniture and Panini Cafe.
A mile south down I-5, Discovery Cube Orange County added 44,000 square feet by injecting $ 22.5 million. And Orange County School of the Arts expanded by 60,000 square feet and added a dance, music and science center.
It’s a long way from when Planet Hollywood opened in the early 1990s and insisted that it was in Costa Mesa when it actually was in Santa Ana.
Last year, Forbes magazine named Santa Ana as one of the 20 Coolest Cities in America. And how cool is that for a city on the rise?
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