A Comeback on 4th Street : Santa Ana’s Fiesta Marketplace Represents Colorful Experiment in Reviving Downtown

Times Staff Writer

When the gleaming, new MainPlace mall opened in Santa Ana in 1987, replete with computer boutiques, trendy toy shops and richly stocked department stores, officials hailed it as the most important development in the city in years.

In dollars, that may be true.

But 2 miles away, where blood banks, beer bars and flophouses once flourished, a smaller, different kind of mall has quietly emerged that may do far more to preserve the soul of Santa Ana.

It is the strikingly colorful Fiesta Marketplace, an open-air collection of Latino-oriented stores, theaters and restaurants that city officials hope will pump new blood into the heart of Santa Ana’s old downtown.


Some Stores Open Already

The $12-million project, which encompasses four square blocks, should be completed sometime this spring, but about half the 25 stores and restaurants that will fill the marketplace are already operating.

“There’s a spiritual quality to a successful downtown,” said City Councilman Daniel E. Griset, who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. “It’s hard to put a price tag on what a working downtown does for an entire city. It was apparent to me that if we had let the downtown fail, it would have been a cancer eating away at ever-widening circles” of the city.

While MainPlace attracts the well-heeled shopper, Fiesta Marketplace offers less-expensive merchandise and targets immigrants who already shop downtown, as well as assimilated Latinos who would shop there if they were given an appealing environment. About half of Santa Ana’s 250,000 residents are Latinos.

Eclectic Mix of Structures

With that goal in mind, five businessmen who make up the Fiesta Marketplace partnership have carved out a project unique in Orange County both in appearance and purpose.

Pastel-colored, neo-Spanish-style buildings with neon trim stand alongside renovated turn-of-the-century landmark structures. A quaint carrousel sits in the middle of the now pedestrian-only Spurgeon Street at 4th Street, while a 96-foot-long neon sign spans the marketplace entrance a block up Spurgeon at 5th Street.

A twin-screen movie theater dominates one block of the marketplace along 4th Street. Around the corner on Spurgeon, smells from a bakery and a pizzeria waft toward the historic Yost Theater, which is undergoing restoration and will once again host live comedy and music acts, as it did in its vaudeville heyday.

The project still lacks the finishing touches, and several prominent storefronts remain vacant. But it is eye-catching even in its unfinished state.

“We wanted to delineate a separate area that was downtown . . . a place these people (could) call their own, where they wouldn’t feel alienated walking through the marble pillars of South Coast Plaza,” said project developer Irving M. Chase. “We wanted it to be like Disneyland . . . where a psychological change takes place the minute they enter.”

In addition to its color scheme and clientele, there is another, less apparent quality to Fiesta Marketplace that distinguishes it from other redevelopment projects, which sometimes force local merchants and property owners out to make room for out-of-town developers and chain stores.

To be sure, some merchants were displaced by Fiesta Marketplace. But the developers, in this case, include Latino property owners and shopkeepers who have made a living along 4th Street for decades:

- Raymond Rangel, born and raised in Santa Ana’s tough Delhi neighborhood. Rangel opened his clothing store on 4th Street in 1955 with a $600 investment and a meager inventory of a few suits and shirts. Today, he owns his own building and his shop is filled with Western wear--including $350 Stetson hats made of 100% beaver hair.

- Jose Ceballos, an immigrant from Mexico who opened his first discoteca y libreria (record and book shop) on 4th Street 12 years ago. His seven DIMEX stores--two of which are in the Fiesta Marketplace--now carry an incongruous assortment of goods, including “boom boxes,” jeans, irons, blenders and telephones, as well as what got him started, musical cassettes.

- Robert D. Escalante, the owner of Custom Auto Service at 3rd and French streets. The business specializes in rebuilding and selling vintage Packard automobiles to customers around the world and has been in its present location for more than 20 years. Escalante, a Santa Ana High School graduate, began working in the shop at the age of 17 and took over the business 5 years ago.

- Allan Fainbarg, a developer who came to Santa Ana as an infant in 1920, the same year that his father, Nathan, a Russian immigrant, bought the Eureka Shoe Store on 4th Street. Young Allan opened his first business in Santa Ana at the age of 13--a gas station at 2nd and Bush streets--and acquired several properties downtown over the years.

The fifth partner, Irv Chase, does not have Santa Ana roots, but he happens to be Fainbarg’s son-in-law. While Fainbarg has provided most of the money, Chase has provided most of the energy and expertise, spending virtually all of his time for the past 4 years on an unorthodox, unusually complicated project that he says will either “make history” or make him and his partners “the laughingstock of the Orange County development community.”

City officials now proudly point to the local involvement in Fiesta Marketplace as evidence of their progressive redevelopment policy. And the project has won national awards for its design and innovative mix of public and private investment. But it almost happened differently.

The year was 1984, and Santa Ana City Manager Robert C. Bobb was leading an aggressive, highly publicized and heatedly debated redevelopment effort that he hoped would make Santa Ana the focal point of the county. His plans for the city included a 32-story skyscraper that would have been the tallest building in Orange County.

That summer, the city sent out about 200 requests for proposals to developers, asking them to submit plans for a “festival shopping” center to be built on what is now the Fiesta Marketplace site.

“It was a pretty popular idea nationwide” at the time, said Ed Henning, a private consultant who was then project manager for the city. Cities like Baltimore, Boston and Seattle were building centers to revitalize their waterfronts, and Santa Ana hoped to do the same to its downtown. The city’s original concept did not include an ethnic element, Henning said.

Escalante, Rangel and other downtown businessmen whose properties were to be gobbled up for the new development began meeting, sometimes in the old Packard shop, sometimes in Jess Galvan’s notorious Chico Club or El Latino bars. They came up with a novel idea: They would form a partnership and do the project themselves, allowing any property owner in the project site to hold onto his building and participate.

“I started there, on that property,” Ceballos said of his first DIMEX store. “We feed ourselves from it. . . . We felt it wasn’t fair for the city to get us out.”

The businessmen then tried to persuade the city.

“We tried to get them to understand not what the city was doing was wrong, but that there were businessmen here who could do it,” Escalante said.

Their first ally was then-Vice Mayor Griset, who was up for reelection that fall and was hearing talk that the downtown merchants believed that the city wasn’t giving them a fair shake.

“I spent a lot of time with the downtown businessmen,” said Griset, who won reelection again last fall. “I learned that there were a number of people with established roots downtown, who had earned the right . . . to attack the blight on East 4th Street.”

At a July 6 meeting in Escalante’s Packard shop, Griset, Bobb and the downtown businessmen reached an agreement: Griset would work to halt the process of recruiting a developer, while the merchants would come up with a plan to present to the city.

The next day, the City Council agreed to give the merchants a chance. They now had political backing and at least a rough vision of what they wanted. But they lacked money; no banker in his right mind would finance the construction of a multimillion-dollar project in a risky part of town--especially when the developers were a group of shopkeepers.

Enter Allan Fainbarg. A successful developer and businessman--he sold his chain of 25 Wild West Stores to General Mills in 1981--Fainbarg had lost other properties in Santa Ana to eminent domain, and now a building owned by a family trust stood in the path of another project. He also knew the other 4th Street businessmen and understood their unwillingness to be uprooted. He was in, and the Fiesta Marketplace partnership was on its way.

“I’ve made my living in Santa Ana,” said Fainbarg, 69, who now lives in Newport Beach. “I wanted to preserve the old buildings and give the local people a chance to preserve their businesses.”

Fainbarg’s financial commitment to the project enabled the partners to obtain $6 million in bond financing from the Bank of America and about $680,000 in federal funds slated for urban development. All property owners in the project area were given the option of holding on to their buildings and buying into the partnership. Those who chose to leave sold their buildings to the city, which in turn sold them below market value to the partnership.

In the end, Ceballos, Rangel and Escalante stayed, as did barber Bob Benitez, who has been on 4th Street since 1948.

“We were kind of blazing new trails there,” said former project manager Henning, referring to the unorthodox ownership arrangement. “There were a lot of reasons not to pursue it--it was very expensive, very difficult and very time-consuming. Financially, it may not have made the most sense, but politically, it made sense and still does.”

Chase, who was asked to come in on the project by his father-in-law, says the success or failure of Fiesta Marketplace will depend on its ability to attract families.

“That will be the most difficult task . . . getting more women down there,” Chase said. The area has long been a thriving center of commerce, but the clientele for the most part has consisted of single male immigrants who found in the downtown a little bit of the Mexico they had left. “That customer is still there,” Chase said, “but we have to expand on that. . . . If we can’t achieve that . . . in my mind, that would be a failure.”

Chase hopes the movie theater, carrousel and two Mexican restaurants that have leased space will help draw families to the marketplace--as will the dress shops and stores like Anna’s Linens, the newest in a chain of 13 stores. The Fiesta Marketplace Anna’s is the only one that is not in a strip center.

“We’re after the old Zody’s customer,” said Jonathan A. Weston, chief financial officer for the chain, referring to the now-closed string of department stores. “We think we’ve found our niche. . . . This (Santa Ana) fits our demographics.”

Thinking along a similar line was Hugo Bandi, a Los Angeles-based soccer promoter who was growing tired of the daily commute from his Fountain Valley home. So he opened a sporting goods shop in Fiesta Marketplace with a partner, Pedro Prieto, who already has two stores in Los Angeles County.

The store specializes in sports that have heavy Latino participation, such as soccer, boxing and baseball.

“Actually, I was looking around here for 8 years, but I never found anything until Fiesta Marketplace came along,” said Bandi, a naturalized citizen born in Argentina. He is new to retailing, but he already has an eye for promotions: a 25-inch television set sits in the window, and Bandi plays videotapes of big soccer and boxing matches.

On one recent rainy afternoon, about 20 men stood huddled in front of Casa Prieto, watching Sugar Ray Leonard battle Marvin Hagler in their historic 1987 fight.

Another newcomer to the area is baker Rene Moya, who opened the Moya family’s third bakery in Southern California--and first in Orange County--about a month ago.

“We felt the place holds a lot of promise,” said the Cuban-born Moya, chopping walnuts to spread over a fresh batch of brownies. He and his wife, Jacki, specialize in pastries and cakes, rather than the breads usually found in traditional Mexican bakeries. “There’s the proximity to downtown, a lot of parking and a large Hispanic population. . . . And there are other things you get--the carrousel, a live band (on weekends) and a security guard.”

Business has been slow for the new stores that have already opened. But the owners said they were confident that once Fiesta Marketplace fills up--which the developers hope will happen in the next few months--business will take off.

The established businesses that chose to stay in the project have hardly missed a beat. Raymond Rangel said that the day before Christmas was his biggest sales day ever, totaling about $7,800. Ceballos’ two DIMEX stores bustle with traffic.

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that it will be a success,” Ceballos said. “Whoever doesn’t want to believe it, that’s their problem. I’m going to make money on it.”