Plan seeks to make Santa Ana the heart of Orange County

Times Staff Writer

For years, Orange County civic boosters have argued over where its “downtown” might be: Santa Ana’s historic urban core? Costa Mesa’s leafy arts complex? Anaheim’s bustling Resort District?

Now Santa Ana city officials are promoting a massive redevelopment plan they say should end the debate once and for all.

The Renaissance Plan envisions instant gentrification along a 421-acre corridor stretching from the county’s civic center to the city’s train station -- a neighborhood of graceful pre-World War II architecture, ethnic shopping districts and historic neighborhoods. But there are also swaths of industry and blight, tiny homes and aging apartments, poverty and crime.

Although the plan seems dreamy to some property owners in the area, city politicians and business leaders believe it could cement Santa Ana as a regional destination bustling with trolleys and alive at night with an energetic street scene.


“Anything that revitalizes downtown is great,” said Mike Harrah, a developer who owns more than 3.8 million square feet of office and retail space in downtown Santa Ana.

Harrah, who owns restaurants and a concert hall, is building the city’s tallest building nearby -- 37 stories of glass and steel.

The Renaissance Plan calls for residential high-rises near the train station, thousands of new homes in nearby neighborhoods, cafes, parks and reduced industrial uses.

The plan would alter zoning, though existing businesses would be allowed to continue operating.


The city has purchased some land in the area with redevelopment funds but vows it will not use its powers of eminent domain to condemn any property.

Councilman David Benavides said the plan was needed “so we are not always reacting” to developers and, instead, creating a wish list for them.

“We want to transfer to the next generation a strong, vibrant downtown,” he said.

City Manager Dave Ream said that if the plan is approved by the City Council, it would probably unfold over decades.


City officials hope to bring a draft plan to the Planning Commission and City Council this spring.

If approved, it would create new zoning that could lead to the construction of upscale housing through the city’s redevelopment agency. Private developers would be needed to complete the plan.

But despite all the civic enthusiasm, some business owners complain that if the plan is adopted, their operations would no longer conform with the area’s zoning.

Although they could continue to operate, the businesses would be prohibited from expanding. Some fear the city might use eminent domain to someday buy them out.


Those who have industrial businesses say that having a business in the planning area hurts them.

“My business and my property are in jeopardy because of this plan,” said Tardif Sheet Metal owner Mike Tardif, whose father opened the company 50 years ago. “I would like to plan for family succession of my business, and this puts that into question.”

John Moore, who owns American Demolition, said he had been planning to rent out a 9,700-square-foot building he owns for seven years at $8,000 a month with annual 4% rent increases.

But when the prospective tenant learned the building was on the plan’s map, he canceled the lease.


The plan “has created a tremendous amount of uncertainty for properties in the plan,” Moore said. “If you aren’t in the plan, you don’t have the same worries.”

Harrah is more optimistic.

“Santa Ana is the capital city of Orange County,” he said, “and it has to have that same shiny effect as its name.”