New Signage for Downtown Santa Ana Sparks Controversy

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Santa Ana City Council members Tuesday evening unanimously approved a $472,480 contract for new directional signage for the city’s downtown, sparking concern from some downtown business owners and Latino activists that the signs contribute to efforts by a private property owner to rebrand Fourth Street.

The so-called wayfinding signs are intended to help new visitors navigate the downtown. While many business owners have long asked for the signage, some are objecting to the wording used to divide the downtown into six general districts.

A mock-up of one of the wayfinding signs for Fourth Street included in a city staff report.

A mock-up of one of the wayfinding signs for Fourth Street included in a city staff report.

In addition to districts marked for the Civic Center, Artists’ Village and Museum District, the signs mark Fourth Street by the “West End” and “East End,” language that is largely used by the Chase family, which owns several properties between Bush and French Street.

Irv Chase and his son Ryan are seen by many as the leading players in an effort gentrify the downtown area and push out longtime Latino businesses and residents.

Activists said the city added the West End/East End language to original plans for the wayfinding signs without enough community discussion.

“Approving the signs as proposed tonight will show an imbalance of power and influence on who gets to shape our City,” wrote the group Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities in a letter to city officials.

The City Council previously approved signage rebranding Fourth Street as “Calle Cuatro,” a recognition of the street’s Latino identity, as part of a resolution pushed by local activists establishing a downtown wellness district. 

Kelly Reenders, executive director of the city’s community development department told the city council that the signs “are not branding” and are separate from the city’s efforts to establish a wellness district.

Several council members acknowledged concerns about the district designations, but insisted that the contract up for approval Tuesday night was a separate, more mundane issue.

“I think that what is happening in the downtown is that we have made a decision to keep certain levels of history visible – that’s Calle Cuatro – and we’re trying to create a balance,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero. “We’re missing out on one portion, which is the benefit to the businesses when people know where to go.”

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said the signs are worded how they are purely for practical reasons.

“As you all know, there are sensitivities to downtown. There are folks who really believe, for better or for worse, [that] as downtown evolves, even directional signs could be a way that changes the look and feel and brand of the downtown,” Sarmiento said. “But this is just a way to find garages and restrooms and places to eat.”

Councilwoman Michelle Martinez offered a motion to approve the bid, but with an amendment to hold off on the specific district designations, and add signs advertising Plaza Santa Ana.

“I know those are just pedestrian markers, but that’s the sensitivity, that we’re just automatically creating these districts,” said Martinez.

Martinez’s amendment didn’t receive any support and the council voted unanimously to go forward with the original contract for the wayfinding signs.

City Manager David Cavazos said staff would take residents’ concerns into account.

After the meeting, activists said they wanted more time for the community to discuss the district designations, but only got “lip service” from councilmembers, according to resident Dylan Thompson.

Claudia Arellanes with the Santa Ana Business Council said that, beyond the signs themselves, the districts exclude Latino businesses from the downtown by cutting off Fourth Street at French.

“Perception, it’s more powerful [than reality]. People are going to think Fourth Street ends at French,” said Arellanes. “East End is a private brand that belongs to a private family developer.”

Reenders said the drawing of district boundaries were made based on input from various downtown groups, and will be evaluated “as the downtown continues to expand.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.