Santa Ana Artists Village Edging Closer to Reality

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The city that has vividly painted itself on Main Street banners and its landmark water tower as a hub of "Arts and Culture" will begin to make good on that slogan today with the groundbreaking for the anchor of its embryonic Artists Village.

The $5.9-million metamorphosis of a gutted building into a student art center marks Santa Ana's first major expenditure on the much-debated arts colony. Designed as a space where artists will both learn and live, the Cal State Fullerton annex promises to bring around-the-clock energy--not to mention nose rings--to a downtown left for dead by businesses.

And, village supporters say, all that new blood will attract restaurants, boutiques and more commercial galleries. They envision an arts enclave as successful as San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.

"We want Santa Ana to become known as Orange County's center for the arts," said City Councilman Thomas E. Lutz.

But some civic leaders and activists don't buy culture as a catalyst for urban rejuvenation.

"It's not necessarily going to stimulate the [downtown] economy," said City Councilman Ted R. Moreno. "It's just a hangout for [other council members'] friends."

He and others argue that Santa Ana can't afford to shortchange such basics as street repairs for a risky, 20-year plan to create an arts district.

"You have to make the city itself more attractive," said Steve Ellis, a founding member of Citizens for a Better Santa Ana. "I can't see someone from Corona del Mar saying, 'Let's go into downtown Santa Ana to go see the arts.' "

The city has had mixed results with past efforts to redevelop its core. The busy Fiesta Marketplace, which replaced flophouses and bars, has done well. Yet many of the offices and businesses emptied during various recessions stand vacant.

An Investment in the Future

Progress on the village has crawled. The Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center is a year behind schedule. Another key component, the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, won't move any time soon to its home in a former auto body shop in need of extensive dry-rot repair, though the city allocated it $408,000 in federal block grants years ago. But those who believe the Artists Village will make the downtown jump again point to the Cal State Fullerton annex as its major springboard.

"For the district to take off, the city needed to make an institutional investment that would show artists there would be some permanency here," said Susan Jones Helper, Santa Ana's downtown development manager. "That investment was the university project."

The Grand Central Art Center will house a complex of apartments, extension-school classrooms, galleries, a computer lab and a cafe. About 1,000 people will pass through its halls daily, said assistant professor of art Mike McGee. "We'll have a 24-hour presence, what with 25 students living there," he said.

They will cross paths in a shared courtyard with the 35 artists who already rent studio or gallery space in the adjacent Santora Building. Other neighbors will include artists now working in other nearby buildings and, perhaps someday, the tenants of 100 new live-work units still in the blueprint stage.

UC Irvine could one day heighten the creative frisson with its proposed digital arts annex just outside the village in an unused YMCA building. Jill Beck, dean of UC Irvine's School of the Arts, believes the arts colony could evolve into a laboratory for innovators.

"That's always the function of more radical, younger urban arts centers," Beck said. "They tend to push the edges. And any [metropolis] that would like to help to define the future has to have a hotbed of experimentation. That could be the Artists Village."

Though plans also call for the new, larger site for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, now in a temporary site nearby, the visual arts will not be the district's only draw. Amid the roughly eight square blocks within strolling distance of the Civic Center, future visitors might see a play such as "Waiting for Godot" in an 85-seat hall within the Grand Central or listen to live jazz in a restaurant-club envisioned for the Southern Counties Gas Building.

"The synergy of [the village's] arts and educational institutions and the diverse, vibrant community around it" could distinguish it from the Laguna Beach arts colony, said Bonnie Brittain Hall, executive director of Arts Orange County, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Revitalized Revenue Envisioned

City officials also envision a swath of attractions extending north along Main Street almost to MainPlace mall. They figure a day's outing would begin just off the Santa Ana Freeway at the planned $50-million Discovery Science Center, proceed south to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art and stop at the proposed new home of the St. Joseph Ballet, before reaching the Artists Village.

Along the route, other stops might include the already operating Koo's Arts Cafe and midtown galleries, coffeehouses and boutiques.

Lutz believes this stretch would not only lure out-of-towners but also give the Civic Center's 16,000 employees incentive to stick around past 5 p.m.

"All of these galleries and shops and restaurants will generate tax revenue," he said.

Lutz said the route could be fully realized within a decade, by which time the city expects to recoup the $5.9 million spent to date on the village. The city's actual share of the Grand Central bill--including site purchase and tenant relocation--is $2.1 million, with the remainder coming from federal block grants.

So far, the colony creates little revenue. In 1996, the city received $2,000 in sales taxes from galleries in and near the Santora Building, Moreno said. And it has reaped $62,000 this year through license fees paid by businesses, according to Helper.

Until the Grand Central allocation, city support had amounted to artist-friendly zoning, publicity and the funds for the Center for Contemporary Art. Criticism has dogged the scheme.

Early on, some Latino artists protested when neither of two focus groups in a city-commissioned village feasibility study was composed exclusively of Latinos. The Latino Chicano Collective has since been formed to promote its members. Today, the Santora's tenancy mirrors the city's predominantly Latino population.

All along, Councilmen Moreno and Tony Espinoza have argued that city money should be spent on deteriorating streets and parks, not art. They call the project a gamble. But the village has proven it can draw crowds--anywhere from 500 to 1,000--during periodic open houses at the Santora, the heart of the colony bounded by Broadway and Spurgeon, 1st and 3rd streets. On a recent Saturday night, the place swarmed with noisy kids, goateed students and smartly dressed couples who scaled the sweeping staircase to poke their heads into showrooms.

"You wouldn't see anything like this in Laguna Beach," said Deeann Holley of Irvine, standing near a disquieting sculpture of a bloody crucified figure. "Laguna [art] isn't free-thinking."

Drawn by creative camaraderie, bargain rents (50 cents to $1 per square foot, in contrast with about 75 cents to $1.35 nearby) and the Santora's rich character, artists began moving in three years ago; the building is now 95% occupied, said Gilbert Marerro of Voit Commercial in Irvine. Across Broadway, the Empire Market Building houses 20 more studios and, temporarily, the artist-run Center for Contemporary Art.

Artists Village visionary Don Cribb first brought his idea to a dubious Lutz in 1990. Four years later, the councilman and other city officials began taking field trips to artists' colonies in Venice; Portland, Ore.; and, most notably, San Diego.

Over 15 years spanning the '80s and early '90s, that city spent about $7 million to transform its downtown Gaslamp Quarter, once dotted with adult movie houses and strip joints, into a tourist destination. The area now boasts galleries, craftsy boutiques and trendy restaurant-clubs like the one that bears Jim Croce's surname, city officials said.

"It dramatically increased tax revenues for city," said Beverly Schroeder, senior planner for the Gaslamp project, "and it's a cultural tourist attraction. When when you come to San Diego, you have to go to the Gaslamp." The district generated $600,000 for the city last year.

Art or Artifice?

In another sign that the Artists Village is gaining momentum, the Santa Ana City Council recently voted to hire its first full-time arts administrator, who will earn up to $48,000 annually to oversee and build upon the city's cultural programs.

Some observers worry that a successful Artists Village could ultimately force out the often-struggling artists it is meant to embrace. (New York City's once bohemian SoHo, for example, has sprouted Eddie Bauer and Williams-Sonoma stores.) Already, some Santora rents have risen by more than 50% to $1 per square foot, Marerro said.

"Is [the city] creating an authentic artists community or creating the artifice of a community?" asked art dealer Daniel Arvizu, who failed to win city funds for a proposed nonprofit contemporary art center in the village.

Lutz said that granting rent caps to artists, as Arvizu has also suggested, would invite discrimination suits. As for Arvizu's art center plan, Lutz said the city has nothing left in its coffers.

Meanwhile, Santa Ana has been sending some less-than-art-friendly signals.

The city recently squelched loud electronic music events, which drew up to 250 to the village's Neutral Grounds coffeehouse. And it unsuccessfully sued the owner of Koo's Arts Cafe, which showcases upstart rock bands, for charging a cover fee without a city permit.

Moreno once called for a citizens panel to review complaints after Santora artist Connie Sasso exhibited condoms floating in jars of honey in a piece that addressed the Catholic Church's prohibition of birth control. His idea fizzled.

But such incidents don't foreshadow a G-rated, acoustic-guitar-strumming zone, Lutz said. In fact, the city hopes to devise an entertainment permit that Koo's and other venues can afford.

"These are the things we're all going to have to work out as the project grows," he said.

Other challenges ahead include finding the money--an amount yet undetermined--to run the Cal State Fullerton site. But university President Milton A. Gordon said the satellite, which will rent its theater space and profit from a gallery shop, should pay its own way in a few years.

"There is no other off-campus facility in the country that combines the [center's] mix of components," Gordon said. "Our success in this project would establish an innovative national model by which other universities and municipalities might collaborate."

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Arts Commitment

Friday's groundbreaking for what will be the heart of Santa Ana's Artists Village marks the city's first major financial commitment to its fledgling arts community. A $4.2-million renovation of the vacant Grand Central Building into an art center adds it to a constellation of six other nearby structures. All except the Float Building are elements of the Downtown Santa Ana Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1. Grand Central Building

* Size: 45,000 square feet

* Built: 1924 for apartments and retail; now vacant

* Future: Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center

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2. Santora Building

* Built: 1929, for retail and offices

* Size: 45,000 square feet

* Future: Unchanged; currently galleries, artists studios, related businesses

****

3. Parker's Garage

* Built: 1920s; was an auto shop

* Size: 6,300 square feet

* Future: Orange County Center for Contemporary Art

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4. Empire Market Building

* Built: 1933, for offices and retail

* Size: 20,000 square feet

* Future: Artists studios to remain; temporary site of Orange County Center for Contemporary Art

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5. Southern Counties Gas Building

* Built: 1923 as gas utility; later site of Handlebar Saloon

* Size: About 12,000 square feet

* Future: Restaurant, possibly with live jazz

****

6. Float Building (two industrial structures)

* Built: 1950s and 1970s; once housed parade floats

* Size: 18,000 square feet

* Future: 50 new artist live-work units

Sources: City of Santa Ana Community Development Agency, Voit Commercial, Arthur V. Strock

Researched by ZAN DUBIN / Los Angeles Times

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