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Injecting New Life Into Old Streets

Santa Ana officials hope to initiate an artsy renaissance on North Main Street with theaters, cafes and upscale housing.

October 17, 2005|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana's North Main Street used to be little more than a route between the Santa Ana Freeway and downtown.

But the neighborhood is slowly getting new life -- with an artsy edge.

An $11-million performing arts center opened last summer in a former bank building and includes a 500-seat, Art Deco-style theater. Construction of a new wing for the Bowers Museum began in September, and a 45-unit upscale condominium project was approved this month.

Nearby is the site of the much-debated One Broadway Plaza, a 37-story office tower approved by city voters in April. It would be Orange County's tallest office building. Santa Ana developer Mike Harrah hopes to line up tenants and begin construction by next summer. But opponents have argued that the building would clog city streets with traffic.

City officials have long hoped the area could see a renaissance by capitalizing on its urban feel -- in stark contrast to mostly suburban Orange County. It is not yet a hip, revitalized retail center like Old Town Pasadena or the downtown plaza in Orange, but visitors are taking note of the museums, a handful of small theaters and new cafes.

"Santa Ana had really gone down, and it is obvious that they are trying hard to do something here," said Joan Whitmore, who went to the Bowers recently with a group from San Clemente.

City officials are pleased with recent developments.

"I think because of all the positive things going on in the area, that corridor to the freeway has a very positive future," said City Manager Dave Ream. "I think we will see significant new investment in that area with additional housing, restaurants and cafes, and other arts-related uses."

But the task ahead is daunting. Cities such as Santa Monica, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have spent years revitalizing areas to make arts districts, said Victor Becerra, an urban planner and director of UC Irvine's Community Outreach Partnership Center.

Santa Ana, with a large working-class, immigrant population, is trying "to strengthen its image to attract a greater middle class into the locale," he said. "It's not an easy process. But what the city needs to do is being done."

There are also plenty of skeptics, including Sam Romero, who owns a store downtown that sells religious items. The changes are "about a little word called 'gentrification,' " he said. "It's good depending on which side of the fence you are on.

"Where is the affordable housing? The housing they are building will cost more than most Santa Ana residents can afford," Romero said. "We depend on folks for customers, and these people are being squeezed out of the city gradually."

Santa Ana, with a population of 351,697, is best known as a government center, the county seat and the most Latino large city in California.

Redevelopment of Main Street began in earnest with the 1994 opening of the Artists Village, shops, galleries and a handful of restaurants nearby. In 1998, the cube-shaped Discovery Science Center opened north of the freeway. Increasingly, new and refurbished buildings are populating the 20 blocks in between.

Change has come slowly, and some artists have left the Artists Village because of rising rents. But there is new community spirit and neighborhood association.

The area north of the Artists Village is once again being called the Museum District, its name since 1990 but rarely used.

The Bowers Museum has been a mainstay of the neighborhood since it opened in 1936. Bowers has become a regional attraction with 2,700 visitors weekly.

Last month, the art and culture museum began work on the 30,000-square-foot Donald and Dorothy Kennedy Wing, which will increase gallery space by 50%.

Bowers President Peter Keller says North Main projects will create "a critical mass" that will inspire other developers who will not feel they are taking a great risk when they invest.

"I look at the carwash and the smaller businesses across the street, and I don't think they are going to be there much longer," Keller said.

Down the street, an abandoned Bank of America building is enjoying new life as the Orange County Performing Arts Pavilion. With a $21-million face lift by developer Harrah, it opened in July with a concert by Righteous Brothers singer-songwriter Bill Medley, a Santa Ana native. The auditorium has 500 leather bucket seats and an adjoining restaurant.

There is a Las Vegas revue every Sunday, and bands have played there since it opened. The nightlife got a boost when the city in April allowed many area restaurants to stay open until 2 a.m.

Key to a thriving downtown area at night is nearby housing, experts say. So city officials were delighted this month to clear the way for a 45-unit condo complex called Cordoba Courtyards.

Brian Lucas, project manager for the developer Steadfast Companies, said the site was ideal.

"It's not an imitation downtown," he said. "It's not a suburban neighborhood trying to create a downtown. We think it's a city headed in a great direction."

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