SANTA ANA — For now, the buildings that line 2nd Street sit mostly vacant, their pillars and grillwork testament to a grander epoch in downtown's history.
But the elaborate architecture of the Santora Building, the Grand Central Building and the Old City Hall, among others, may soon teem with new life: a fledgling Artists Village with galleries, Bohemian-style cafes and studios where artists would work and live.
To city officials, who have climbed on board the project, the village promises revitalization of a depressed stretch that will spur commercial growth and feed off the influx of potential consumers the new federal courthouse is expected to bring to the area.
To county artists who have long nurtured the vision, the village will bring them out of isolation, sparking new collaborations. And Santa Ana--gritty, diverse and rich in history--provides a perfect laboratory for the new colony, they say.
"When the unexpected rub together, then you get new things. You get sparks. Ideas are born. People start cooperating," said Don Cribb, president of the Santa Ana Council of Arts & Culture and the visionary behind the artists community. "I hope it draws disparity together. To me it's a crucible."
Unresolved issues remain: While Santa Ana city officials are taking steps to ensure the plan moves forward, they concede that the financing remains up in the air for certain projects key to its success. And some Latino artists who only recently heard about the plans for an artists community question why their opinions have not yet been sought.
But the overall response from many touched by the project is a buzz of excitement--an incredulous belief that a creative heart for Orange County's emerging artists is now seriously in the making and may get underway by early next year.
"This is happening in Santa Ana! It's not happening in Irvine. It's not happening in Newport Beach," said Randy Au, a ceramic artist who heads the Santa Ana Studio Artists Assn., launched four years ago as the vehicle to make the live-work concept a reality in the city.
"Instead of going next door to borrow a cup of sugar, you're going to go over to borrow a tube of cadmium paint. Hopefully, people who paint will collaborate with people in theater or in music."
The project should succeed, Au said, because almost everything an artist could want is already nearby: a library, City Hall, restaurants and stores lining bustling 4th Street, coin-operated laundries, and even a multicultural bookstore.
Slapped against the window of Au's current studio near the train station in an industrial stretch of Santa Ana is a poster teasing the times to come and comparing Santa Ana to New York's art scene.
"SoHo? So What," it reads in playful letters designed by Santa Ana advertising consultant Joe Duffy to look raw and home-grown. "We have grungy work space in drafty old buildings right here in Santa Ana. What we don't have are bone-chilling winters. Or a butt-numbing 2,400-mile drive to get here. Need more reasons to move in?"
Members of a planning committee, including Cribb, Au, architect Ernie Vasquez and city staff and council members, have traveled to Portland, Los Angeles and San Diego to check out other artist colonies. A market study commissioned by the city and completed in February stamped the project "viable."
The village "anchor"--the Orange County Center for Contemporary Arts--is fixing up its new home at Sycamore and 2nd streets recently purchased with financial help from the city. The building is undergoing extensive renovations that should be completed for an opening by next January, said Mike McGee, president of the OCCCA board and the art gallery director at Cal State Fullerton.
Cal State Fullerton is submitting a proposal to convert one building in the area into studio and living space for graduate art students and is considering a satellite gallery there and offering extended education courses, McGee said.
And the city is in the process of buying the old Handlebar Saloon, another historic building along the 2nd Street Walkway, blocked to traffic for more than a decade, for an as-yet-undecided use.
City officials hope that once the anchor tenants get up and running, the project will snowball.
"If we make these key investments, we should be able to step back and enjoy the fruits of our labor," said Cynthia Nelson, executive director of Santa Ana's Community Development Agency. "We're prepared to make commitments that will be the catalyst to get the project off the ground."
But Nelson said it was unclear how the Cal State Fullerton project would be funded. "We need to step back and figure out what we can afford to do first," she said. "We have no money. They have no money.
"We \o7 can\f7 do things that don't cost money," she added, such as modify zoning in the area to make it specific for live-work space, which the city expects to do by July.
The persistent force and vision behind the project is Cribb.