Amid the cookie-cutter homes in gated communities throughout Orange County, Santa Ana's downtown has become a refreshing, urban oasis for adventurous home seekers. New businesses and a nascent artists village have drawn professionals who live in lofts and revel in the area's Latin flavor, which differentiates the area from its starchier neighbors.
Santa Ana was founded in the late 1800s when William H. Spurgeon came on horse from Kentucky and bought the land, which was then part of the vast Yorba family ranch. He was the city's first mayor when it incorporated in 1886. Public transportation, including the Red Car, train and trolleys, and roads were built in the next decades, allowing for a bustling downtown that attracted large department-store chains. These stores had closed by the late 1980s.
Ten years ago, the city of Santa Ana began promoting the concept of an artists village and encouraging the investment of millions of dollars in vacant historic buildings in downtown, which led to a reduction in crime.
"Santa Ana has a stigma, but some people are seeing more here now," said Tanya Weeks, a real estate agent with Platinum Properties International, who lives in a loft. "We are the pioneers in here. But now many lofts are coming and this area will boom."
Two years ago, the Olson Co. of Seal Beach built most of the 74 lofts in downtown Santa Ana, which spans the area bounded by 1st, Minter and Ross streets and Civic Center Drive. Within three years, city officials project as many as 300 more will be built, including 16 more by Olson.
"The biggest attraction for buyers is living and working in an in-town urban community," said Bill Holford, Olson senior vice president of sales and marketing. "You have shopping, retail, services, dining and transportation all close by as opposed to living in the suburbs, where you have to commute to the different services."
Santa Ana's two-story lofts, which were offered for $275,000 2 1/2 years ago, now fetch more than $500,000, Weeks said.
Olson has not set prices for its 16 new ones. Four lofts currently are on the market and priced from $509,000 to $599,000.
The company's existing lofts, with finished kitchens, painted walls and few interior divider walls, range from 1,400 square feet to 2,100 square feet.
The closest traditional neighborhood to Santa Ana's downtown is French Park, a tract of stately historic homes near Spurgeon Street and Washington Avenue. Home prices there range from $400,000 to $700,000.
Surrounding areas also include aging rental homes and apartments.
The downtown shopping area includes check-cashing outlets, discount clothing shops, travel agencies and jewelry stores, among other businesses.
Shoppers can also buy fresh fruit, ice cream and chips from vendor carts stationed on the streets.
The downtown area hosts an annual three-day Mexican Independence Day fair in September. About 75% of Santa Ana's population is Latino.
"What we have here is definitely not suburbia," said Matt Lamb, the city's downtown developer manager. "It's definitely like nothing else in Orange County."
Heninger Elementary School, Willard Intermediate School and Santa Ana High School serve the area. Their scores on the Academic Performance Index in 2003 were 641, 544, and 601, respectively, out of a possible 1,000. El Sol Academy and Orange County High School for the Arts are nearby charter schools with API scores of 559 and 841, respectively.