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Office Tower Could Speed Santa Ana's Growth

A 37-story building would be the county's tallest and could spur development.

March 01, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana is the seat of county government and home to the region's bustling courts, but even downtown, mothers pushing strollers seem to outnumber bureaucrats toting briefcases.

The transformation of the city's relatively modest downtown into one of high-profile development may be launched with the construction of a 37-story office tower that is awaiting City Council approval.

Such a makeover, though, will come over the objections of residents who favor a downtown of converted homes and small businesses over any vision of towering modernity. Critics of the office tower are vowing to go to the voters to block the project, which others consider long-awaited progress.

The proposed $86-million, green-glass tower, known by its address -- One Broadway Plaza -- was approved last week by the Santa Ana Planning Commission, paving the way for what would be the county's tallest building. The council is scheduled to vote on the matter March 15.

Santa Ana officials hope the building, with completion set for 2006, will boost the status of the county seat. City planners say more high-rises will come as urban land prices force developers to build up instead of out.

The 493-foot tower is expected to house legal offices and Fortune 500 companies, according to developer Mike Harrah, who owns or co-owns 50 buildings providing 2 million square feet in downtown Santa Ana.

Harrah, who cuts a scruffy profile and enjoys a reputation for his eccentricity, began working in the city nearly a decade ago, investing in boarded-up buildings that are now centerpieces of a restored downtown.

The project faces little opposition among City Council members, who have supported such downtown initiatives as a new artists colony next to a shopping district.

"I think there is clearly momentum for approval." said Councilman Jose Solorio. "Maybe there is a growing consensus that it will complement our efforts of rebuilding and re-branding the downtown."

Orange County real estate consultant Christopher G. Davis said Harrah recognized a need for new offices downtown, where attorneys have operated from homes and older offices to gain proximity to Orange County's courts and agencies.

The tower would open as demand for county office space rises with continued economic growth, said Davis, who is also director of the real estate management program at UC Irvine.

If Harrah's building fills with tenants, more like it will follow, Davis said.

"Land has become very precious on an infill basis. As long as the market can support it ... then we are probably going to see more of it," Davis said. "There is not a lot of land available in Orange County."

High-rises in Orange County, including two proposed 18-story residential towers in Irvine and four ranging from eight to 20 stories proposed in Santa Ana, are a "sign of the maturation of a market," he said. "People are thinking of going up as opposed to sprawling out."

Nonetheless, it's hard for some to swallow the idea of a tall building among homes and two-story office buildings.

"This is being seen as the way to maximize value of property," said UC Irvine planning and law professor Joseph DiMento. "But the jury's still out as to whether the preferences of people in Orange County will lead to more of this construction."

Opponents question whether the project belongs on Broadway, which is lined with historic homes set back from the street.

"This would annihilate the last remaining historic thoroughfare in the city," said developer Ben Gabriel. "How many cities can say they have a street like Broadway?"

Gabriel has vowed to launch a referendum to challenge the project if it is approved.

Harrah's original plan called for demolishing seven historic buildings. But, after retooling the building's configuration, he said he will raze three.

He garnered goodwill by spending millions to renovate two downtown buildings, the former Masonic Temple and the United Auto Building, both boarded up until he decided to turn the first into the Santa Ana Performing Arts and Event Center and the second into what he hopes will be a restaurant and classic car museum.

Nonetheless, Joann Ramirez, a member of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society who has led opposition to the tower, said it should be built on the city's periphery, where the other office towers are.

"I know things are different now, that we are built-out, that there is nowhere to build. But I don't think the location is right," she said.

Among critics' concerns is that traffic, already choking downtown streets, will worsen. The project will generate an estimated 6,686 daily car trips on narrow thoroughfares that will not be widened. Harrah will spend $10 million on improving intersections near the towers.

The city and Harrah have worked together on several downtown redevelopment projects, including new restaurants, a parking structure and meeting centers.

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