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Santa Ana Hopes to Get a Lift From Lofts

Housing: The city is subsidizing 86 downtown units targeting artists. Some merchants fear high rents.

September 14, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Ana is subsidizing the construction of 86 "live-work" lofts just off the bustling 4th Street Latino shopping district, stylish-yet-relatively affordable living accommodations that city leaders hope will help revitalize downtown.

Even though the lofts have stirred up suspicion and uncertainty among some local merchants, city Redevelopment Director John P. Reekstin said the artists and professionals expected to move in will bring a renewed energy--and money--that will benefit everyone downtown.

"This is a city-driven effort," said Reekstin. "It's something more reflective of Los Angeles, San Diego or Long Beach. We believe it will attract artists and drive our downtown."

The lofts, versatile spaces that have few walls and many uses, will be finished by the end of the year near the shopping zone and Santa Ana's budding artists' district, and even more may be on the way.

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Urban Lofts New Here

Urban lofts are commonplace in other cities but they're somewhat new to Orange County, where more and more homes are ensconced in gated communities.

To see how artists lofts have triggered economic development in other cities, Santa Ana officials traveled to Portland, Ore., and toured the city's Pearl District, where lofts and a small artists village have evolved into a dynamic attraction.

That's what they hope will happen in downtown Santa Ana, where the Artists Village has sprouted up alongside traditional Latino shopping and modest homes and apartments. The Artists Village includes 12 galleries and more than 100 artists, although fewer actually live in the city.

Santa Ana artists are excited about the lofts, even though some may be unable to buy the units that will cost between $275,000 and $350,000.

"It's fabulous. It really establishes a permanent community for artists," artist Margie Zuliani said. "A lot of artists do resent the cost, but that is the reality in Orange County."

The idea of building lofts in Santa Ana dates to the late 1980s, Reekstin said. The soft real estate market made it hard for the city to act until last year, however, when the redevelopment agency purchased three blocks between Main, Bush, Sycamore and 2nd streets for $2.1 million.

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Developer Gets a Subsidy

Then officials scouted around for a developer, and picked the Olson Co., which had built lofts in Long Beach. Santa Ana sold Olson the downtown parcel for $900,000, basically giving the company a $1.2-million subsidy.

Already, there are 60 prospective buyers on a waiting list, said Lenette Hewitt, Olson Co. sales and marketing director. The units will be 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, and include garages. Among the buyers, Hewitt said, are an interior decorator, an art gallery owner and a concert violinist.

Twelve units have already been sold. Thirty lofts will be completed by December, she said. The city also has been contacted by four other development firms interesting in building for units in the area, said Matt Lamb, Santa Ana's downtown development manager.

An additional four lofts will be built above a Save-On pharmacy on the corner of First and Sycamore streets in Santa Ana, thanks in part to a legal settlement over a zoning dispute between the city and a Beverly Hills development firm, The Charles Company. The company is expected to complete the lofts by the fall of 2003.

"Lofts are new to all of Southern California but they are popular particularly with artists. It certainly helps us to continue the artists district," Charles attorney Fred Gaines said.

And there is talk of yet another loft developer looking at property near the Artists Village.

In the Latino shopping district, many merchants fear the lofts will begin to "whitewash," or gentrify, downtown Santa Ana--luring affluent professionals and upscale shops and driving out existing residents with increasing rents.

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No Input, Merchant Says

Sam Romero, owner of St. Teresa's Catholic Shop on 4th Street, said city officials never bothered to consult with the merchants about the new lofts.

"I think eventually they wouldn't mind if only a small percentage of us survive," Romero said. "We have no input at all."

Joann Ramirez, a Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society member, opposes the Sav-On lofts because the project would require the demolition of a historic building.

"They want jazz and pizazz," Ramirez said. "They want to get rid of the people who are there now."

The lofts being built by the Olson Co. have given the city one of its first real tests on balancing the needs of the established Latino community and newcomers.

The lofts are being built next to Festival Hall, a popular and often noisy venue that attracts Mexican bands and their sometimes rowdy fans. Police have responded to 46 calls at the Festival since January and 47 calls during 2001--for everything from traffic violations to public intoxication to public disturbances, according to police Sgt. Baltazar de la Riva.

To help reduce the noise, the city is installing vestibule doors at the hall and is spending $250,000 to install air-conditioning so the doors can remain closed. In addition, a wall will be built to separate the lofts from the venue.

"Fourth Street is very successful, but south of 4th Street ... we needed to think how to revitalize and join the different elements to create a downtown that is cohesive," Reekstin said.

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