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Santa Ana Artists Village Edging Closer to Reality

Redevelopment: Groundbreaking is today for $5.9-million cornerstone in controversial project.


SANTA ANA — The city that has vividly painted itself on Main Street banners and its landmark water tower as a hub of "Arts and Culture" will begin to make good on that slogan today with the groundbreaking for the anchor of its embryonic Artists Village.

The $5.9-million metamorphosis of a gutted building into a student art center marks Santa Ana's first major expenditure on the much-debated arts colony. Designed as a space where artists will both learn and live, the Cal State Fullerton annex promises to bring around-the-clock energy--not to mention nose rings--to a downtown left for dead by businesses.

And, village supporters say, all that new blood will attract restaurants, boutiques and more commercial galleries. They envision an arts enclave as successful as San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.

"We want Santa Ana to become known as Orange County's center for the arts," said City Councilman Thomas E. Lutz.

But some civic leaders and activists don't buy culture as a catalyst for urban rejuvenation.

"It's not necessarily going to stimulate the [downtown] economy," said City Councilman Ted R. Moreno. "It's just a hangout for [other council members'] friends."

He and others argue that Santa Ana can't afford to shortchange such basics as street repairs for a risky, 20-year plan to create an arts district.

"You have to make the city itself more attractive," said Steve Ellis, a founding member of Citizens for a Better Santa Ana. "I can't see someone from Corona del Mar saying, 'Let's go into downtown Santa Ana to go see the arts.' "

The city has had mixed results with past efforts to redevelop its core. The busy Fiesta Marketplace, which replaced flophouses and bars, has done well. Yet many of the offices and businesses emptied during various recessions stand vacant.

An Investment in the Future

Progress on the village has crawled. The Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center is a year behind schedule. Another key component, the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, won't move any time soon to its home in a former auto body shop in need of extensive dry-rot repair, though the city allocated it $408,000 in federal block grants years ago. But those who believe the Artists Village will make the downtown jump again point to the Cal State Fullerton annex as its major springboard.

"For the district to take off, the city needed to make an institutional investment that would show artists there would be some permanency here," said Susan Jones Helper, Santa Ana's downtown development manager. "That investment was the university project."

The Grand Central Art Center will house a complex of apartments, extension-school classrooms, galleries, a computer lab and a cafe. About 1,000 people will pass through its halls daily, said assistant professor of art Mike McGee. "We'll have a 24-hour presence, what with 25 students living there," he said.

They will cross paths in a shared courtyard with the 35 artists who already rent studio or gallery space in the adjacent Santora Building. Other neighbors will include artists now working in other nearby buildings and, perhaps someday, the tenants of 100 new live-work units still in the blueprint stage.

UC Irvine could one day heighten the creative frisson with its proposed digital arts annex just outside the village in an unused YMCA building. Jill Beck, dean of UC Irvine's School of the Arts, believes the arts colony could evolve into a laboratory for innovators.

"That's always the function of more radical, younger urban arts centers," Beck said. "They tend to push the edges. And any [metropolis] that would like to help to define the future has to have a hotbed of experimentation. That could be the Artists Village."

Though plans also call for the new, larger site for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, now in a temporary site nearby, the visual arts will not be the district's only draw. Amid the roughly eight square blocks within strolling distance of the Civic Center, future visitors might see a play such as "Waiting for Godot" in an 85-seat hall within the Grand Central or listen to live jazz in a restaurant-club envisioned for the Southern Counties Gas Building.

"The synergy of [the village's] arts and educational institutions and the diverse, vibrant community around it" could distinguish it from the Laguna Beach arts colony, said Bonnie Brittain Hall, executive director of Arts Orange County, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Revitalized Revenue Envisioned

City officials also envision a swath of attractions extending north along Main Street almost to MainPlace mall. They figure a day's outing would begin just off the Santa Ana Freeway at the planned $50-million Discovery Science Center, proceed south to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art and stop at the proposed new home of the St. Joseph Ballet, before reaching the Artists Village.

Along the route, other stops might include the already operating Koo's Arts Cafe and midtown galleries, coffeehouses and boutiques.

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