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Preservationists oppose loft building in Santa Ana

They say it's a poor fit for the area. Developer says people don't want a design from the past.

January 08, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

If you want to rile a historic preservationist in Santa Ana, the way to do it has become pretty clear -- as clear as glass.

For the second time in as many years, preservationists are protesting a glass-facade building proposed for the largest historic downtown in Orange County.

The latest project, which the City Council will review Feb. 5, proposes five lofts atop ground-level shops. A jumbo-size elevator would lift cars into holding spaces tucked inside the building. For the project to advance, the council must approve zoning changes to allow the combination of residential and commercial uses.

The arguments against the project echo those lodged against a 37-story glass office slated to be built seven blocks away. One Broadway Plaza, which would be Orange County's tallest building, is planned for an area dominated by turn-of-the-century revival architecture. The building has been approved, but the required anchor tenant has yet to be announced.

That project angered local residents and preservationists, who said the height of the building was out of proportion with the historic two-story buildings surrounding it, and that its glass exterior would clash with the rest of the town's urban heart.

Developer Mike Harrah, who has bought and preserved many buildings in downtown Santa Ana, has said the glass tower would fit the neighborhood and stimulate business as professionals occupied its office space.

The loft project, though much smaller, touches on the struggle of integrating new construction and aesthetics in Santa Ana's historic district.

Although the neighborhood is filled with historic architecture, the Ronald Reagan Federal Building, with its marble and glass exterior, is across the street from the loft project, adding weight to the argument that downtown Santa Ana can comfortably blend old and new.

Although planners argue that the lofts would complement the historic structures around it, resident Debbie McEwen says the project is "like a wart with a hair in it, popping out of an otherwise historic district. There is no reason to go to an exotic and bizarre extreme."

The lofts are among several hundred built or planned in Santa Ana, a sign of the tight Orange County real estate market that has forced developers to seek infill projects and unique marketing ideas.

To address concerns about historic preservation, the plan for the West End Lofts has been modified by developer David DiRienzo of Urban+West+Strategies of Santa Ana in the two years since first proposed to the city, said Santa Ana planner Hally Soboleske.

"We feel we have worked to gain consensus from a lot of groups and interested parties," DiRienzo said. "This is a project that speaks to the revitalization of the downtown."

Historic buildings would flank the project, to be built on a 4,000-square-foot lot that has been vacant since a 1978 fire. To the west is a circa 1915 building that once was a vaudeville theater but now houses offices and shops. And to the east is the former Semi-Tropic Hotel, used now for stores and offices.

"History shows you do not go backward and build something that looks like something from the past," DiRienzo said. "As a society, we evolve and move forward."

The lofts would occupy five of the building's six stories, with five one-floor lofts set over shops. The bottom three floors would be clad in red sandstone to blend with the downtown's brick buildings. The rest of the project would have a glass facade. Preservationists worry that developments like it would diminish and even threaten the 19th and 20th century revival styles prevalent downtown.

"These lofts bring up the same issues as One Broadway Plaza. The arguments are the same," said Ben Grabiel, a board member of the Santa Ana Historic Preservation Society. "The city should realize this is a historic city and we need to do what it takes to make this a destination."

Society board member Guy Ball added, "When you bring in buildings that don't fit, you are creating a different feel that will impact downtown in the future. Most of the cities in Orange County had a historic downtown, and they got rid of them. That's the beauty of downtown Santa Ana, and we need to maintain it."

Soboleske said the rules governing the National Register of Historic Places did not require that new developments follow historic standards.

City officials consider the lofts a pioneer project that would pave the way for similar ones, Soboleske said.

"We're saying the very nature of the downtown is that of evolution and change," Soboleske said. "This building is just a representation of its period of time. The idea is that this new concept will draw people to the downtown and make it a destination."


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