Artists, Church Negotiating Over Santora Arts Building

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Santa Ana’s downtown artists are negotiating for a contract with the likely new buyer of the Santora Arts Building, Irvine-based Newsong Church, that would keep the building’s arts focus intact.

But the details of such a contract have yet to be ironed out, and significant questions remain, both sides acknowledged.

“Right now it’s a little too early to comment on the details,” said Alicia Rojas, one of the founders of United Artists of Santa Ana (UASA), a group whose focus lately has been protecting the arts at the Santora.

Voice of OC first revealed last month that Newsong was close to buying  the building. Since then, a current of resistance has flowed through Artists Village, an eclectic mix of restaurants and art galleries seen as key to revitalizing the downtown.

The fear is that a church will kill the nascent downtown culture, which is quickly becoming a nightlife hub.

Newsong leaders say they have no firm plans for the building. Their purchase, they say, is rooted in a desire to save the Santora from corporate interests that would turn it into a commercial real estate venture. They insist there are no plans to evict the artists.

The idea is to draft an agreement similar to the redevelopment agreement current building owner Michael Harrah had with City Hall. That agreement, which expired last October, called for Harrah to keep at least 80 percent of the building’s leasable space dedicated to the arts.

But such a contract poses its own set of problems. For one, the building’s leasable space is now considerably less than 80 percent dedicated to the arts, according to Tom Greer, who identified himself as an accountant associated with the church. Much of the building’s upper floor is occupied by lawyers’ offices, a catering company and the headquarters of Voice of OC.

There are other questions as well. How does UASA, a group with no official affiliation, sign its name to a contract? Can censorship be forbidden through such a contract? Can the church simply replace art galleries it finds offensive with Newsong artists?

The artists met with Greer and Councilman David Benavides earlier this month to discuss a potential contract. So far, Greer and Rojas have expressed progress in coming to terms.

“I think there was some progress made in alleviating some of their [artists’] concerns,” Greer said. “We reemphasized our desire to remain focused on the arts and to work jointly in that direction.”

The artists may receive the help of the city attorney’s office in drafting a contract. At a council meeting this month, council members expressed support for keeping the building dedicated to the arts. Mayor Miguel Pulido appointed a three-member ad hoc committee tasked with tackling the issue.

“I consider it [Santora] the heart of the Artists Village,” Pulido said.

Benavides — who sits on the committee with council members Carlos Bustamante and Michele Martinez and whose family has attended the church — said that the city attorney could assist in the drafting of the contract should the city be a party to it.

“Outside of that, I don’t think we can stretch the city attorney’s role to work on something that doesn’t actually involve the city of Santa Ana,” Benavides said.

— ADAM ELMAHREK

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