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Santa Ana May See High-Rise Housing Projects Lift Its Image

Proposals -- not yet approved -- total 1,400 units, including some townhomes. Some ask what the city is doing for low-income residents.

August 15, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

A new wave of residential construction is being proposed in Santa Ana with a distinctive flavor -- 1,400 units in high rise, loft and condominium communities served by retail and entertainment businesses.

The three unrelated housing proposals suggest that developers envision a Santa Ana that attracts upscale professionals seeking an urban lifestyle free of cars and long commutes. They show, too, that some residential builders are sensitive to the high cost of land and seek alternatives to sprawling neighborhoods.

"These are not the typical suburban developments that Orange County is known for. There are new, exciting urban alternatives," said Jay Trevino, city planning manager. "It's also a solution in a place where land is scarce. Developers can only go up, not out."

None of the proposals has been before the Planning Commission. But given the city's recent approval of a 37-story downtown office tower, the residential units may win favor with officials eager to change the city's image as home to financially struggling Latino immigrants.

Housing in this city of 370,000 runs from tired, congested apartment complexes to older, larger homes in stately neighborhoods. The price of dozens of artist lofts in the downtown has nearly doubled, from the mid-$200,000s to more than $500,000 since they were built about two years ago.

City staff members have met with developers of each of the projects, which are expected to be reviewed by the Planning Commission in the fall. The commission conducted a study session on one of them last week.

The three projects include:

* The Nexus project, comprising three 23-story condominium towers, low-rise condominiums, fitness centers, and 10,000 square feet of retail space at the southeast corner of Main Street and MacArthur Boulevard, close to other high-rise buildings near John Wayne Airport. The project is expected to include 850 condominiums.

* Geneva Commons, 18-story and eight-story buildings with 278 condominiums plus 12,000 square feet of retail space at the northeast corner of Main and MacArthur.

* City Place, 242 townhomes and lofts, 58,000 square feet of retail space, including a theater, at Main Street and Memory Lane.

They come on the heels of two high rise residential towers planned for Irvine, including one under construction. Three others have been proposed for Irvine, and other high-density urban housing has been built in Brea and Anaheim.

"Orange County is ripe for this kind of development," said Cindy Nelson, a former Santa Ana deputy city manager who is director of entitlement for Nexus Companies, which proposed the Nexus project. "It's a natural progression of real estate development. Land and the cost of land are encouraging increased density."

Nelson said Nexus' target buyers are empty nesters and unmarried people who can afford homes that cost as much as $1 million.

Units in the high rises will sell for $400,000 to $1 million and condominiums for $300,000 to $600,000, although prices could rise when they are built in two years. "We think Santa Ana is a good marketplace," said Nelson. "It's centrally located. It's near the beach. It's near the airport. There is a strong employment base."

Jim Walker, a resident of Santa Ana's Sandpointe neighborhood adjacent to two of the projects, said the proposals are a mixed blessing. "Staying the way [the city] is, is not good," Walker said. But additional housing could mean increased traffic and congestion, he said.

Others question why the projects do not recognize the need for affordable housing.

"We can't fault a city like Santa Ana for encouraging housing for higher income residents. But what are they doing for lower income residents?" asked Scott Darrell, executive of the Kennedy Commission, an advocate of affordable housing. "We need more urban, dense housing. The downside is that there are no set-aside requirements that will keep any of these units affordable."

Nonetheless, city officials, painfully aware that Santa Ana is often seen negatively by its Orange County neighbors, are eager to see developers build upscale housing.

"They all really point to futuristic urban villages for Santa Ana," said Councilman Jose Solorio. "It's about making life simpler. The residents will be able to live, work and play in a small radius."

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