Others say the city should have found the money to keep the city's arts administrator, Jim Gilliam, on the payroll after grants paying for his job ran out. Without him, galleries have lost a crucial coordinator who prevented overlapping events and kept the parties in communication with one another.
Planning experts, however, urge critics to give the effort time. Creating an art district requires years of promotion and development, they say.
"I would caution patience," said UC Irvine planning professor Marlon Boarnet. "A downtown project is a slow and incremental project," he said, because it involves changing the use of existing structures instead of building new ones.
"People look at Old Town Pasadena and the Santa Monica Promenade," said Margo Wheeler, deputy director of planning in Las Vegas, which is nurturing its own downtown arts district. But "they don't know the decades it took to do that. It's not an overnight thing to create a pedestrian walk with culture, shopping and housing."
City officials say they have done the best they can with limited resources.
Whitaker said state funds that could have been used to subsidize retail and residential projects, and help developers amass land, have dried up.
"There may be some impatience," she acknowledged. But "we want to move forward. We need the private sector to drive this now."
Indeed, residents who want more restaurants, more music, more bars and more promotion of them have taken matters into their own hands. A restaurant association and the Artists Village Neighborhood Assn. have been formed.
Artist Brian Christenson has no trouble envisioning a bustling Artists Village. He and his wife, Robin, bought a Santa Ana loft for about $300,000 in the village nearly two years ago. While maintaining other jobs, they opened Scribble Theory Gallery last year on the bottom floor of the loft and have sold thousands of dollars in oil paintings on the first Saturday of each month. Other sales come by appointment.
"A lot of people told us we were crazy when we moved," Christenson said, but "there is a lot of potential here."