The Yost Theater located at N. Spurgeon and Fourth streets in downtown Santa Ana. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011 | The new operators of downtown Santa Ana’s historic Yost Theater are getting an earful about their plans for the landmark venue.

Dennis Lluly and David Leon, who have leased the property from owner Irving Chase since 2009, want to re-open the Yost in July and begin a new chapter for the theater as a concert venue, much like The Grove of Anaheim or the House of Blues.

But the partners are not having an easy time. They’re facing stiff resistance from local residents, business owners and even a state senator because of plans to serve alcohol while allowing those under 21 to be in the theater.

“The problem we have is teen drinking,” said Sam Romero, a representative of the Logan neighborhood and owner of a Catholic gifts shop near the Yost on Fourth Street. “Teen drinking leads to other drugs and a higher school drop-out rate. We need some way to reverse that and keep kids in school.”

But the controversy goes beyond the alcohol issue. The theater has become another flashpoint in the tension between those who want to see Fourth Street reinvented into an area that appeals to a younger, trendier generation, and longtime merchants and residents who want to keep the street a family-oriented, Latino shopping corridor.

Lluly and Leon insist they are taking strict precautions regarding how and to whom they serve alcohol. Drinking adults are going to be cordoned off in a separate area that minors won’t have access to, they said. They also plan on paying for extra police presence under certain circumstances.

“When you go to the Honda center to see Lady Gaga, you can have a beer next to a 10 year-old,” Leon said. “We’re actually more conservative.”

Lluly and Leon say that Romero and others are reacting to a larger change to the downtown that would be happening with or without the Yost. And they have their own supporters, including a member of Santa Ana City Council.

“They see new people, they see the Anglos coming down here, and they don’t like it,” Leon said. “We’re the scapegoat. It’s the Yost’s fault. They don’t like the whole thing.”

Ask longtime Santa Ana residents and business owners about the Yost, and you’ll get earfuls about its storied and controversial past.

For decades, the Yost, which was built in 1912, screened Latino films and served as a beacon for Spanish-language cinema, receiving Mexican movie stars and catering to the city’s growing Latino population. Luis Olivos and his family owned and operated the Yost beginning in the 1950s.

But the city took ownership of the Yost in the 1980s because Olivos couldn’t afford improvements needed to seismically retrofit the building, as OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arrellano explains in this story. The city sold the Yost to Fiesta Marketplace Partners, and some longtime Santa Ana residents saw the transfer as a theft from the Olivos family.

In 2007, Irving Chase, managing partner in the Fiesta Marketplace partnership, decided to reopen the Yost and allow local community groups to use the space for free. But Chase had a goal in mind — he wanted to bring back crowds who were abandoning Fourth Street so they would spend money in the area

Frank and Michael Palmer, the father and son duo that operate Palmer Insurance and Income Tax on N. Main street, have spoken up against Lluly and Leon’s plans. Frank Palmer says the new Yost will detract from the family-friendly atmosphere on Fourth Street and hurt the street’s already struggling merchants.

“Oil and water’s not going to mix,” Palmer said. He added that the higher-end customer base that gentrification proponents want to attract doesn’t exist in large enough numbers in the city for the vision to be successful. “I would rather have three customers that make $20,000 a year than one customer who makes $60,000 a year,” he said.

Michael Palmer, 28, agrees with his father and also says trouble at Lluly’s Koo’s Cafe — a youth space in the 1990s that hosted events from Spanish rock shows to rap — is evidence that the new Yost will mean safety impacts for Fourth Street and the surrounding neighborhoods.

“I was there [Koo’s Cafe] at least a dozen times. I saw first hand under-age drinking and fights in the parking lot,” Palmer said. “I saw it with my own two eyes.”

Lluly denies that such activity went on at Koo’s Cafe regularly. He said the only problems with Koo’s Cafe were the noise complaints from surrounding neighborhoods. “It wasn’t because of fights or anything else,” Lluly said.

Lluly also makes the same argument as Chase has made regarding Fourth Street, namely that the Latino immigrant customer base has abandoned the street in favor of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.

“Five to 10 years ago you couldn’t even walk down the street,” Lluly said during an interview, referring to what he says are now vanished crowds on Fourth Street. “It’s a fear of losing control of Fourth Street, that’s the real story.”

Ultimately, the decision to allow the Yost to open to both children and adults while serving alcohol rests with City Council.

The Council’s public safety committee, which includes council members Claudia Alvarez, Sal Tinajero and David Benavides, has been reviewing a possible dance ordinance amendment that would allow minors into places like the Yost. However, details of such a revision have yet to be hammered out.

Benavides has voiced early support for the idea of an all-ages concert venue. He sees the city’s downtown as having untapped potential. “What I’m looking forward to is a downtown that is a place for all of Santa Ana, all of Orange County and all of California,” Benavides said.

Benavides also wants to see the downtown shed its exclusively Latino image and embrace modern society’s multi-racial reality. He points to his own biracial marriage.

“She’s [Benavdies’ wife] white, I’m Mexican — second generation — we’ve got a big family now, and we want the downtown to embrace that diversity,” Benavides said. “We’re not trying to move everybody out, we’re trying to embrace who we are.”

Tinajero said he is still mulling over his position on the issue. He said the major points to consider are the number of alcoholic establishments in a dense area, the fact that there are residential neighborhoods nearby, and the problem of curfew adjustment, which is currently 10 pm for those under 18 years old.

“It’s been one of those areas that you have to be careful what you approve, and how much you approve,” Tinajero said.

Among those opposing the plans for the Yost is State Senator Lou Correa, who sent a February letter to Mayor Miguel Pulido in support of business owners and residents against the dance ordinance amendment. Pulido did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“Concerned citizens believe that an underage nightclub will be counterproductive to Santa Ana’s efforts to reduce gang activity, alcoholism, drugs and the high school drop-out rate,” The letter reads. “As a father and resident of Santa Ana, I share these concerns.”

Correa complains that if council were to approve the amendment, it would reverse steps taken in the 1980s to push wall-to-wall bars out of Fourth Street.

“I’m a little bit confused here,” Correa said. “That was one of Santa Ana’s victories, which was to clean up all those alcohol places downtown — why are we all of the sudden bringing them back?”

Lluly said comparing his plans for the Yost to what he calls the uncontrolled neighborhood bars of the 1980s is unfair. And he said the arguments made by Romero and others have no merit in the 21st century.

“The whole kicking the Mexicans out of Downtown — that’s the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard,” Lluly said. “It’s such an old world conversation.”

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