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Prized Property Pulled From All Sides

Developer again seeks to level 1920s building in Santa Ana. City may overrule its planning panel.

November 17, 2002|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

A Beverly Hills real estate company that has spent a decade trying to develop a cornerstone property in Santa Ana's historic downtown will seek permission Monday to rip down the 1920s-era building and put a pharmacy in its place.

The city's Planning Commission last month denied M&A Gabaee's request to raze the long-vacant Central Auto Body Works building at 1st and Main streets and erect a Sav-On pharmacy with four second-story residential lofts.

But city officials said the developer has been spurned so many times that city staffers probably will advise the City Council to overrule the commission's denial and approve the project.

Over the last 10 years, the real estate company has proposed a restaurant, an auto-parts store and a small shopping center on the corner -- regarded as the gateway to downtown Santa Ana.

"The threat of a lawsuit is definitely going to influence them," said Alison Young, president of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society

City officials and Gabaee worked together on the plan for the pharmacy as part of a settlement to a lawsuit in which the developer alleged Santa Ana was hindering development. City officials asked that the lofts be added to boost the adjacent Artists Village.

Despite the compromise, the city's elected officials, historic society commissioners and residents have never come to a consensus on how to develop the entryway to the downtown shopping district.

"The city has not really been able to decide what it wants on that corner. Some people think it should be some special kind of project," said Fred Gaines, who represents Gabaee, a company that owns or manages 3 million square feet of retail space in Southern California.

Some believe the city should have purchased the property years ago to give it a larger role in shaping its destiny.

"I apologized to the owner.... What should have happened is that the city should have bought the property and waited for the right project," said Planning Commissioner Chris Leo, who voted to deny the pharmacy. "This does not fit within what is going on downtown."

In denying the plan, commissioners said the pharmacy would not have enough parking and would be across the street from a Rite-Aid pharmacy. Commissioners also expressed concern about adding another retailer with a liquor license to the neighborhood.

Others lamented the potential loss of a vintage building.

"The city should not be held hostage because of a lawsuit.... We need to protect the city, particularly such an important corner," Young said.

Even those voting for the project had doubts about bulldozing the old structure.

"This is a key entryway into the historic district, and some would like to see something more important than a drugstore," Planning Commission President Glenn Mondo said.

"For other people, they are horrified by something on the historic list coming down under any circumstances," he said. "Others say they are worried that one of the two pharmacies will go dark. And others -- I'm in this group -- do not think the developer has been treated fairly, and we need to address that."

Gabaee appealed the decision to the City Council.

Councilman Jose Solorio said he believes that despite the history behind the site, the resulting project "would work quite well near the Artists Village. It has a retail element and a residential element."

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