The promotional video shows what some would consider a fantasy vision of Santa Ana -- and which others see as a nightmare. A glass-sheathed office tower dominates downtown. Horse-drawn carriages ply the street alongside it, and even the adjoining parking garage is adorned with public art.
This is the scene the Santa Ana City Council yearns for, hungry to recast its downtown -- filled with storefront businesses popular with the city's immigrant residents -- with an injection of big development money.
With office buildings like this, they say, Santa Ana can better compete against the newer suburbs of Orange County. Irvine shouldn't have the corner on glitzy office buildings filled with professionals, they say.
To Santa Ana council members, developer Mike Harrah is coming to the rescue, offering to construct a 37-story office tower that would house 2,000 workers and become an instant landmark as Orange County's tallest building.
With Harrah's investment in a neighborhood better known for its check-cashing operations and bridal shops, Santa Ana officials hope to create a better impression of the city.
Already Orange County's undisputed government center, the city -- with Harrah's office tower -- could reinvigorate its reputation as the county's economic seat as well.
Harrah already owns 3 million square feet of space in the city's downtown, in more than 60 buildings, including several office buildings of about 10 stories each. He recently opened a restaurant called "Original Mike's" and, on June 1, he will open a 500-seat performing arts theater with, he says, a concert by the band Chicago.
Because of such efforts, civic leaders sing Harrah's praises as the city's premier commercial developer.
One Broadway Plaza
But he expects that his marquee achievement in Santa Ana will be the construction of One Broadway Plaza. In size, it would trump other residential or office towers planned or under construction in the county, including a trio of planned condominium towers, each taller than 20 floors, at the intersection of Main Street and MacArthur Boulevard in Santa Ana.
Harrah wants to construct his $86-million building not far from the city's downtown and state and federal courthouses -- in a neighborhood originally zoned for three-story buildings not to exceed 35 feet. One Broadway Plaza would create not just jobs, but a buzz.
No sooner did the City Council approve the plan in July than residents mobilized to block it.
They collected more than 14,000 signatures to force an April 5 referendum, hoping there is enough outrage in the neighborhoods to overturn the City Council's approval.
Council members "want to compete with Irvine, and this is not Irvine," said resident Oscar Garza. "City officials need to look at what Santa Ana is and build from there. They can't use ideas from other cities that have a different history."
But Harrah said Santa Ana needs to take such a dramatic step to draw attention to itself.
"You have to have an icon tower," Harrah said. "The city has nothing to offer to Fortune 500 companies except height. If it's not going to be different than buildings at South Coast Plaza, why will these companies take a risk and come to Santa Ana?"
In fact, Harrah initially proposed a 60-story, 800-foot-high building, but was rejected by the Federal Aviation Administration because of safety concerns. The tallest building in Orange County is the 285-foot Center Tower at South Coast Plaza.
The ensuing referendum campaign over the fate of Harrah's project has taken on David vs. Goliath overtones. Opponents have scratched together less than $45,000 -- largely from garage sale proceeds and private donations -- to take on Harrah, who has raised $367,300, mostly from his own pocket.
Citing a possible conflict of interest because of his connections with Harrah, Mayor Miguel A. Pulido has not voted on the project. But he has publicly supported it at City Council meetings.
At one recent meeting, for instance, resident Joe Gerda said he feared his Floral Park neighborhood might become as congested as the Westside of Los Angeles, where he used to live.
"It takes 50 minutes to get out of Westwood at rush hour," said Gerda, who invoked the word traffic a dozen times during his three minutes at the dais.
Answered the mayor: "I prefer a city that is so good that it is inconvenient. Any city [worth] going to in the world has its inconveniences. You can't just get across town real quick ... but the destination makes it worthwhile. That is a city I want to live in -- a city that is vibrant."
Most of Santa Ana's recent developments over a decade have been more low-key, including dozens of residential lofts, a half dozen restaurants and many new, but generally small, companies, including advertising and video post-production firms.