The 20-year odyssey of a dirt lot in Santa Ana

A sign reads One Broadway Plaza and has a moose
A marker for One Broadway Plaza, a proposed 37-story tower near downtown Santa Ana.
(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, July 14. I’m columnist Gustavo Arellano, which means I can have opinions. And I’m reporting from Orange County, specifically SanTana — what the rest of Southern California calls Santa Ana.

On the edge of the city’s downtown, across the street from the Orange County School of the Arts and a Latino Jewish kinda synagogue, sits an empty lot that takes up nearly half a city block. A two-story dirt mound with weeds at the top is near its center. A massive wooden fence blocks lookie-loos from checking out what’s inside.

Welcome to One Broadway Plaza.

It’s the grandiosely named architectural Moby Dick of Mike Harrah, long a force in downtown SanTana’s development. The tall, burly, bearded multimillionaire has told anyone who’ll listen for the last quarter-century that he was the savior of the area by buying up buildings big and small when no one else would. He has continued with that supposed legacy by acquiring the old offices of the Orange County Register in 2018 and convincing the City Council — in a gross giveaway of public funds — two years later to not only gift him a parking structure that Harrah would turn into a 16-story luxury apartment building along with a luxury hotel, but also $13 million in public improvements.


Like the old George and Ira Gershwin tune goes, nice work if you can get it!

But residents in SanTana have loudly scoffed at Harrah’s plans, because they’ve heard this song-and-dance already in the form of One Broadway Plaza’s unfinished dirge.

As early as 1999, Harrah was telling reporters he wanted to build a 37-story tower at what’s now One Broadway Plaza, which would make it Orange County’s tallest structure (Harrah once told my former editor he decided on that height because that would allow him to see it from his backyard in Newport Beach). The City Council approved his plans in 2004 despite a staff report finding it would worsen traffic and air quality in the residential neighborhoods around it. The only caveat the council imposed: Harrah couldn’t start construction until he had leased at least half the building.

Harrah survived threats of a lawsuit from historical preservationists, a 2005 citywide referendum meant to block the project, and a state investigation into a potential conflict of interest involving then-Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez (who was just elected as an Orange County Superior Court judge last month) as he vowed to transform SanTana with One Broadway Plaza like the Baron Haussmann-meets-Charlie Daniels that Harrah imagined himself to be.

And then ... nada.

Harrah couldn’t find enough tenants to trigger the start of construction, so he convinced the City Council in 2010 to let him start with no tenants whatsoever. Then he couldn’t finance the project. Harrah sold off some of his other holdings, like the gorgeous Santora Building in downtown, to shore up his cash ... and nada. By 2018, Harrah was reduced to asking for a partner or investor or — if someone wanted to pony up $200 million for One Broadway Plaza and other properties — a buyer.

“Probably that would work,” he told the Register, which revealed Harrah had already spent $90 million for his vacant lot.

And nada.

The SanTana City Council allowed Harrah in 2020 to use 14 stories for residential units in the wake of a pandemic that has made offices almost irrelevant. Now, the brochure he’s passing around — which describes One Broadway Plaza as the “tallest, greenest, most technologically advanced luxury urban community in the history of Orange County” — calls for 27 stories of apartments and a couple of stories for a theater, restaurants and a heliport.

Number of floors left for offices? Four.

Harrah didn’t return a request for comment, which is unfortunate: I’ve covered this story for nearly 20 years, and it would’ve been fun to catch up. So I’ll leave ustedes with the nickname that my wife made up years ago for One Broadway Plaza, which comes to mind every time I drive by Harrah’s unrealized dream:


One Dirt Lot.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


In a fatal shooting, the LAPD says a man aimed at an officer. Body cam footage tells a different story. Instead of clarifying what happened, the video has injected more uncertainty into the incident. Los Angeles Times

Starbucks to close six Los Angeles stores that are ‘unsafe to continue to operate,’ the company says. There’s also that pesky matter of a mass unionization effort sweeping the company, which I’m sure had nothing to do with the shutdowns at hand. Los Angeles Times

The walls of Troy: Exclusion and community in a pandemic. A doctoral student in American studies and ethnicity at USC — go Bruins! — unloads on her school. Perspectives on History

Two L.A. priests get warm sendoffs as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels changes pastors. Goodbye, Father David Gallardo; hello, Msgr. Antonio Cacciapuoti. Angelus News

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California opens the door to suing gun makers. Here’s what the new law does. Three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down tough state controls on concealed weapon licenses, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law an effort to limit the availability of “abnormally dangerous” guns in the state. Los Angeles Times

Some urban observations from my Barcelona vacation. Streetsblog LA editor Joe Linton gets infrastructure inspiration from the Catalan capital. Streetsblog LA


Roman Polanski criminal case transcripts must be unsealed, court says. An appeals court ruled Wednesday that records related to Roman Polanski’s case must be made public, which could end the decades-long legal saga over the film director’s sexual abuse of a teenager in 1977. Los Angeles Times

LAPD searching for suspect in series of convenience store, doughnut shop robberies. No word yet if this loser is connected to a string of fatal robberies of 7-11s in Orange County. Los Angeles Times

UC Santa Barbara chancellor investigated in hit-and-run allegation, but denies involvement. What a gacho Gaucho. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. water use plunges a record 9% as unprecedented restrictions bring savings. If you don’t already have a five-gallon bucket in your shower to catch the water as it warms up, then you’re no better than William Mulholland. Los Angeles Times

sprinklers Alhambra
A sprinkler waters grass in Alhambra.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

California’s farms and meatpackers had more COVID violations than all other industries combined. And getting dinged for breaking safety rules didn’t appear to make these workplaces any safer. Mother Jones


31 dog-friendly beaches in L.A. and O.C. Our rescue dogs Hook and Cosmo are getting pup-friendly sunscreen and ready to catch waves. Los Angeles Times

Birria is the greatest threat to taco culture — and its savior. Texas Monthly taco editor José Ralat — whom I just interviewed for my own column on Jill Biden’s Breakfast Taco-Gate — talks about the L.A. origins of the beef stew that has overwhelmed Mexican restaurants across the United States. (My tía Paulita in Artesia makes the best birria de res and makes two distinct salsas for it. Sorry, you can’t have any unless you hit up my primo Sergio.) Texas Monthly

Backyard punk-inspired ‘BYO Gaming’ lounge offers East L.A. youth another way to fight. Better brush up on your “Super Smash Bros.” combos! L.A. Taco

Hells Angels want to hold a Sonny Barger memorial service at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders should come back one final time to pay #respect to the founder of the motorcycle club’s Oakland chapter. The Oaklandside

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Los Angeles: partly cloudy, 81. San Diego: partly cloudy, 71. San Francisco: cloudy, 68. San Jose: sunny, 80. Fresno: sunny, 105. Sacramento: sunny, 98.


Today’s California memory comes from John Brorsen:

As a kid, growing up in the S.F. Bay Area in the ‘60s was pretty cool to begin with, but we were lucky enough to have access to a cabin a mile from the Santa Cruz beaches. We spent many summer days there. But it gets better. When driving Highway 17 to the coast, my dad would often stop at Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley for a break in the trip. A real Christmas Land year-round in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains. We relished the weird reality of seeing Santa and Mrs. Claus in 70-degree weather and eating caramel apples from the candy store. California was (and still is to me) a wonderland.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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