Santa Ana Is Hoping to Build Loftier Downtown

Times Staff Writer

Vagrants used to sleep in the hallways. The elevators smelled like urine. And the apartments were packed with families, five to 10 people deep.

But now, a 196-unit apartment building in downtown Santa Ana is being tuned up for higher-end tenants, signaling change in the city’s historic Artists Village. Investors and artists say they see the possibility of staging a hip, trendy street scene in one of Orange County’s few urban centers.

The area, which bears signs of wealth and squalor, is also home to thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrants, and there’s concern a rapid makeover could come with human consequences.


The transformation echoes what is happening in downtown Los Angeles, where industrial buildings are being converted into lofts and apartments and a spirited urban life is taking form.

In Santa Ana, summer outdoor concerts, rarely held in the city’s downtown, are scheduled for this summer in a promenade across from the apartments on Broadway and new retailers, such as American Apparel, are moving in.

MJW Investments is responsible for much of the recent change. The Los Angeles-based developer has also played a role in transforming downtown Los Angeles.

That’s good news for many in the 12-year-old artists enclave in Santa Ana, where business owners and residents have been holding their breath, hoping the area would blossom someday. The Artists Village includes shops, galleries, residential lofts, restaurants and a flavorful Latino shopping district in an area roughly bordered by 1st, Birch, 4th and Spurgeon streets.

“We’re definitely coming back up after a period when it was sort of quiet,” said Andrea Harris, director of the Grand Central Arts Center, an artists hub where art graduate students from Cal State Fullerton live. “We are getting the night life we need, and we’re getting housing stock that is much needed, too.”

Business owners formed the Santa Ana Business Council two years ago and recently began to promote the city as “downtown Orange County,” a slogan that Santa Ana now uses on its correspondence.


“We want to brand this area as downtown Orange County. We want people to know about the cool things that are happening here, and we’re happy to see new people who believe in what we are doing,” said Bob Stewart, the council’s president.

The district was born when city officials pumped $11 million into the area, where boarded-up buildings once stood just blocks from the county’s civic center. Many of the buildings have been revitalized, restaurants have moved in and studios have banded together for open houses the first Saturday of the month.

Dov Charney, owner of American Apparel, said he was immediately drawn to the area. He said it reminded him of other neighborhoods where he’s opened shops, such as Little Tokyo, Echo Park and Shoreditch in London. The shop in Santa Ana is set to open by the end of August.

“It’s an emerging little enclave where there are artists and creators,” Charney said. “It’s an incubator city where people are trying to do things a bit differently. I felt there was positive energy.”

Others have a similar vision for Santa Ana’s future.

The business council, with the help of the Grand Central Arts Center and downtown residents, is sponsoring three outdoor concerts this summer, including what’s being billed as an experimental music festival, which will include a “carchestra” -- remixed music transmitted through car radios and speakers placed around the community.

Chaille James, senior vice president of MJW Investments, said her firm saw the old Plaza del Sol apartment complex as “a diamond in the rough.”


“It was crying out for someone to come in and spend a little money on it,” James said. “This housing will serve a void. There’s nothing for people who want to lease a higher-caliber apartment product.”

The complex, to be renamed the Court at Artists Village, will feature a renovated pool, a new gym and kitchens with granite counters. Local artists will create banners and a sculpture for the complex. Rents will range from $1,200 to $1,775.

Former tenants were offered a month’s rent to leave, and all but 14 units were cleared, James said. The building had 60 vacancies when MJW bought it. New tenants will need to meet stricter rent guidelines, she said.

Dennis Lluy, a downtown resident who helped organize the concerts, says he hopes the changes will not offend those who have long lived and shopped in the area.

The additions are getting mixed reviews from merchants who have long sold their wares on 4th Street.

“It sounds like gentrification,” said Sam Romero, who owns a religious articles shop. “Every one of those people who left was part of our customer base. If you cater to Latinos, you have to think your days are numbered.”


Others, however, say that more people downtown can only be a good sign. “The more we have, the better off we are,” said Ray Rangel, who owns a Western wear shop. “Green is green, no matter who’s got it.”