Santa Ana approves aid for downtown businesses affected by streetcar construction

An excavator sits in the middle of 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana, which has become a streetcar trolly construction site.
An excavator sits in the middle of 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana, which has become a streetcar trolley track construction site.
(Gabriel San Román)

For more than a month, 4th Street in Santa Ana has bustled with dust and despair rather than people looking to shop and dine. Several blocks of the historic downtown thoroughfare closed for construction starting on Jan. 31 to make way for the OC Streetcar, a 4-mile urban rail system that will be routed through the area once completed.

It didn’t take long for the $509.5-million Orange County Transportation Authority project slated to be completed by 2023 to arouse ire along 4th Street.

For the record:

9:46 a.m. March 9, 2022The article has been updated with the current budgeted cost of the OC Streetcar project.

On Feb. 9, downtown business owners, still struggling from the pandemic and already reeling from construction-related revenue losses, took to the dirt mounds in protest before heading to Santa Ana City Hall this week. That’s where City Council members approved the creation of a Santa Ana Business Interruption Fund to deliver $1.5-million in economic aid and relieve some streetcar stress.


“My sales are down 70-80%,” said Valentin Martinez, owner of Nino’s Bridal Couture, during the March 1 council meeting. “We are concerned about the future of our businesses, if we’re going to stay or close down.”

Many business owners, who operate beauty salons, restaurants and quinceañera shops around 4th Street, followed with similar complaints before council. They criticized the proposed funding as insufficient and pressed council members to increase the sum.

“It’s not enough to withstand so many months of the streets being closed,” said Alfonso Calderon, representing Taquería Guadalajara.

OC Streetcar construction is expected to continue through at least late summer, if not longer. It will ultimately link the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center through 4th Street with strip-malls near Little Saigon.

Business owners have called for Walsh Group to expedite its construction timeline.

In the meantime, they also contend that the fenced-off sites have invited other problems to downtown, including increased vandalism, break-ins and assaults.

To help mitigate the impact to businesses, the city has subsidized free parking hours in structures it owns. But shopkeepers have pressed for parking to be free at all times during construction — and they want the structures as well as the areas around them to be better secured.

Logan Crow noticed a distinct lack of a security in the early morning hours when he learned that someone smashed the Frida Cinema’s windows two nights before the council meeting.

“My theater was just the latest downtown business to be broken into in just the last few weeks,” Crow said. “It’s beyond me how the safety and the welfare of the businesses on 4th Street, who you would think OCTA would want among the most vocal advocates of its upcoming streetcar, are being disregarded in this manner.”

A few days before construction began, Tresa Oliveri, an OCTA community relations officer, presented on the project during Downtown Inc.’s quarterly board meeting on Jan. 26.

Along with the Santa Ana Business Council, Downtown Inc. administers the Business Improvement District, which collects funds from area businesses for security and promotion purposes.

“We’ve been providing information to the businesses all along 4th Street and surrounding blocks,” Oliveri said during her presentation.

Julie Castro Cardenas, a city employee, praised OCTA’s door-to-door outreach efforts but noted she received angry text messages from business owners who learned of recent “no parking” signs posted on parking meters on their own.

“We’ve made contact, at least with employees, for everybody on 4th Street at least once,” Oliveri added.

The agency is also offering marketing support to downtown businesses through its “Eat, Shop, Play” program. A paid Spanish-language social media, radio and print effort is set to be implemented later this month.

Beyond that, the call by some entrepreneurs for OCTA to match any direct funding provided by Santa Ana to businesses isn’t on the table.

“The OC Streetcar project, originally developed and proposed by the cities of Santa Ana and Garden Grove, is being built in partnership and with majority funding from the Federal Transit Administration,” said Eric Carpenter, OCTA spokesman. “The FTA limits spending of federal funds to the construction of the OC Streetcar project and does not allow for direct financial assistance to individual businesses.”

That leaves the Santa Ana Business Interruption Fund.

Under the program, “mom and pop” businesses affected by current construction are set to receive up to $10,000 in assistance; permitted pushcart vendors are also eligible for $2,500.

Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan cautioned against notions that the city could provide more economic relief through any projected budget surplus, but supported the $1.5 million in funding, which was originally allocated to attract economic development along South Main Street.

“We’re taking a hopeful approach as we allocate these funds,” Phan said, “but that’s not to say that in the future we couldn’t come back and allocate more.”

Discussion at the dais focused on how to do just that, sooner rather than later.

At first, Councilman Johnathan Hernandez proposed doubling the fund to $3 million.

City Manager Kristine Ridge noted that such a move would require an appropriation, which wasn’t on the agenda item before them. Such a proposal could come back before council in April at the earliest.

In addition, council members voiced support for improving signage and security in the parking structures.

“With this money, I hope that we could also try to set aside some funds to immediately help with advertising,” said Councilman David Peñaloza. “The ‘advertising’ that OCTA has provided is terrible.”

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento recalled that when the OC Streetcar came before council in 2014, a majority of downtown business owners wanted the route to go through 4th Street. Now that construction crews are at work, the city is pressed on ways to solve the problems that have arrived with them.

“We just need to make sure that all the businesses that are there right now survive,” Sarmiento said. “That’s, really, the ultimate goal.”

The council voted 5-2 to approve the funding while directing staff to find more money for a future appropriation vote.

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