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Artists Are Facing Brushoff

Dispute: Landlord is evicting the Arc group, but Santa Ana offers to help it stay in village.

June 16, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Ana has stepped into the fray between a landlord and a group of artists who are being evicted from a building on the edge of Artists Village, the district of galleries, shops and restaurants the city is banking on to revive its downtown.

The Arc, a loosely knit group of 15 artists based in a historic commercial building across from the federal courthouse on West 4th Street, regularly offers a funky mix of art exhibits, jazz concerts and youth events. But the group might disband after a bitter dispute with its landlord, Wan Cha.

"The city has to walk a fine line in a dispute between landlords and tenants, but we do want to see if we can help them stay in the Artists Village," said Matthew Lamb, the city's manager for downtown development.

The artists say the landlord will let them stay if they promise not to have social gatherings, a stipulation that would ban art shows and concerts, and that there be no art displays in the lobby.

"We are Santa Ana natives and we want to stay in the city," said J.J. Martin, a painter, sculptor and Arc organizer. "We are struggling artists and we want to do what we do best here."

Cha met with city officials last week, but no resolution was reached. In a separate meeting with Arc representatives, Martin said city officials encouraged them to look for space elsewhere in the artists district while they explore other options.

Cha said the tenants, who must leave by June 30, have dirtied the interior of the 1880 two-story commercial building. He said they live in the studios, keep pets--including a dog, cats and a duck--and play live music, all in violation of the lease.

"The building owner must take care of the building, and to do that, these people cannot stay in the building," Cha said. The tenants, who have been subletting their units from a previous tenant, counter that they have cared for the building by painting walls, installing lighting and cleaning carpets. They deny Cha's other complaints and say they weren't given adequate notice of a 15% rent increase.

Cha said the artists, who paid the previous leaseholder rents ranging from $120 to $950 a month, have not paid rent since he took back the building May 1. He said he gave them eviction notices that require them to vacate by the end of this month.

Lamb said the tenants and Cha are unlikely to come to an agreement, so he is trying to help the artists find another home. He has looked at smaller spaces on 4th Street, but Martin and the other artists say it will be difficult to find a space big enough. They currently work in a total of 7,000 square feet in one building, including one 1,100-square-foot space.

Santa Ana has spent years working to develop an artists center in a part of downtown that has struggled with boarded-up buildings and blight. Since the mid-1990s, city officials have invested more than $11 million in several cornerstone projects: $6.5 million to renovate the Grand Central Art Center, a complex of galleries and studios that also houses a small theater; $350,000 to renovate a building that is the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art; $1.7 million in seed money for the establishment of the acclaimed Orange County High School of the Performing Arts, and $450,000 to help remodel a restaurant in the Santora Arts Building, home to more than 20 galleries and studios.

"Every downtown needs a revitalization engine, and we want ours to be an arts and cultural center," Lamb said, adding that he is examining approaches taken in Minneapolis and San Francisco, where city officials work with nonprofit groups that get grants and raise funds to create artist-friendly spaces in downtown areas.

Open houses at the galleries in the district on the first Saturday of each month attract as many as 2,000 people, city officials say. But some artists doubt the district will thrive, in part because escalating rents will force them out.

Lamb said the evictions involving the Arc group are not evidence of increasing gentrification that ultimately will force artists out.

"There is no trend here yet," he said. "But the city is concerned how it grows and what we can do to protect what we have grown already."

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