Tuesday, May 31, 2011 | Restaurants are reporting double-digit sales increases, the parking lot operator is beefing up its staff and bar bouncers are seeing IDs from all over Orange County.

And where might this be happening? Downtown Santa Ana.

Long described as the epitome of urban decline in Southern California, the downtown area has suffered during the recession. And many a merchant — especially those on Fourth Street – say their struggles continue.

But come to Artists Village on Broadway between First and Third streets after dark on a weekday night and you’ll see things you didn’t see two years ago: cars filling parking spots, standing-room-only on restaurant patios and groups of youths hanging out on the Second Street Promenade.

“Downtown Santa Ana is becoming a destination,” said David Hastie, general manager of Memphis at the Santora, a restaurant in the village. Memphis has experienced double-digit growth over the last year, he said.

Kayla Mata said she and her colleagues at the Proof Bar, which is a few doors down from Memphis, are noticing the same thing. “We get a lot of people from South County,” Mata said.

Janelle Flores, a 23-year-old graduate of UC Irvine, is one of those South County people. Outdoor malls like the Irvine Spectrum just don’t appeal to Flores and her friends, she said.

“I feel like everybody that we know, at least in my age group, feels that way,” Flores said.

Adding to the buzz, a new restaurant called Chapter One — which is quickly becoming a favorite of politicos like City Councilman Carlos Bustamante — had its grand opening Friday.

There are more indicators that the area is receiving wider notice.

The same day as Chapter One’s grand opening, a Harvey Milk Day celebration drew hundreds out to Fourth Street. And as part of Orange County’s “Fashion Week,” a competitive fashion show was held the same day at the landmark Yost Theater.

The area’s monthly art walk is drawing bigger crowds. Diego Alvarez, facility manager for Parking Concepts Inc., the downtown parking enforcement company, said the number of cars during the most recent art walk was up by two or three hundred from previous art walks.

Traffic has increased so much, Alvarez said, that the company hired 10 extra security guards and traffic coordinators. “We’re getting the attention. We hit the right spot,” he said.

Yet the revitalization of downtown’s night life has not necessarily benefited the area’s retailers. An American Apparel shop located in the heart of Artists Village just closed.

Other business owners in the area, particularly on the heavily Latino Fourth Street, fear that a city-backed effort at downtown gentrification will end up helping only a few.

These merchants, however, face stiff resistance from large property owners, who argue that the area needs a top-to-bottom face-lift before it will experience a broad-based turnaround.

The success of restaurants shows that the area can attract more affluent visitors if they have a reason to come, say property owners like Irving Chase, who owns a significant section of Fourth Street.

Chase has gone so far as to require his tenants to upgrade their merchandise before he will renew their leases. 

Some of Chase’s tenants have resisted, saying he and others are chasing a vision that is doomed to fail. An influx of trendy 20-somethings at night, they say, won’t be enough to replace the working-class families who depend on the Fourth Street stores for their daily needs.

The restaurateurs, meanwhile, say they want more restaurants and more hip stores like Calacas, a Latino clothing and curios shop that has bridged the divide between cultural tradition and younger customers looking for something trendy.

“Everyone brings their own crowds,” said 24-year-old Dante Parel, general manager of a downtown restaurant called the Crosby.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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