Tuesday, July 19, 2011 | Santa Ana City Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez Monday night called for what amounts to an investigation into recent actions on largely Latino Fourth Street — the epicenter of a battle between local businesses and major downtown property owners over what many see as an effort to gentrify downtown.
Alvarez wants to know, among other things, whether public money was used to purchase a recently removed Fiesta Marketplace sign, which identified a part of Fourth Street that has since been renamed Santa Ana’s East End, as well as an uprooted carousel that had come to symbolize the street’s Latino, family-friendly atmosphere.
Alvarez also called for city staff to determine how to abolish the special property tax district that funds Downtown Inc., the organization that promotes and maintains the city’s downtown core.
In making these demands at Monday’s regular City Council meeting, Alvarez staked out a clear position in the argument over whether Latino merchants are being pushed out of downtown.
“I definitely see a pattern, and it begs the question: Is there a deliberate attempt to get rid of Latino businesses?” Alvarez said after the meeting.
Nearly 60 property owners have signed a petition demanding the district be desolved, citing doubling or tripling of their property tax bills. They say that Downtown Inc.’s promotional activities and other services are designed to benefit the interests of large property owners like Irving Chase and the bars and restaurants that draw crowds at night.
Council members were scheduled Monday to consider setting a public hearing on adjusting the boundaries of the special tax district. Instead, Alvarez declared that the new boundaries did not resolve a dispute among property owners. “That map was not the map council members were looking for,” Alvarez said.
She invited the public to submit its own maps to City Hall and set Thursday as the deadline.
Irving Chase, majority owner of most of the property at East End, argued during the meeting’s public comments portion that the tax district wasn’t about race. As he spoke, nearly 30 protestors stood wall-to-wall holding signs critical of the district.
Chase acknowledged that he has become the target of much of the criticism directed at Downtown Inc.
“I have become the personification of the disagreement surrounding Downtown Inc.,” Chase said. “For whatever reason, a group of people think I am the villain in this case.”
Chase has a new vision for his part of Fourth Street that would replicate the Artists Village on Broadway, a day-and-night shopping and entertainment district. Many merchants are suspicious that Chase is largely behind a drive to push Latinos out of the area.
The uprooted carousel and Fiesta Marketplace sign were located in Chase’s area of the downtown. Chase has also told his tenants that he will not renew their leases unless they expand their merchandise to include items that appeal to groups other than Latino immigrants. He says he is making these changes in response to economic realities, not because he wants to drive Latinos out of the area.
“This isn’t a matter of race, this is a matter of business,” Chase said. “I’m really sick and tired of the race issue being played here over and over again.”
Chase was clearly angry about the situation. “I want to remind the council that I’m the one that built Fiesta Marketplace,” he declared. He hasn’t made “a penny” on the properties and is willing to show council members his accounting records to prove it, he said.
As he walked back to his seat after making his public comments, Chase responded to apparent whispers in the crowd: “That’s right, I’m Irv Chase! That’s my name!”
Councilman Carlos Bustamante made similar arguments, agreeing with Chase’s contention that the market has shifted. “You either move with it or die on the line,” Bustamante said.
He ultimately backed Alvarez’s push to continue the hearing and allow the public to submit its own district maps.
Other merchants also supported Downtown Inc. and Chase’s vision of the area.
George Mendoza, the 37-year-old owner of the new American Barbershop on Fourth Street, said his shop has been vandalized as a result of the increasingly hostile atmosphere. He said the word “American” was crossed out from his shop window.
“This is not a racial thing at all. I’m here to open up the coolest barber shop in Santa Ana,” Mendoza said.
Finally, council members Alvarez and Michele Martinez called for a more detailed audit of Downtown Inc.
Alvarez referred to what she called a “Mickey Mouse” 12-page accounting review, saying it wasn’t an adequate examination of the organization’s finances. Martinez criticized an alleged transfer of $230,000 to Downtown Inc. from its predecessor organization.
Alvarez said if a solution can’t be found that satisfies more property owners on both sides, the council would consider abolishing the tax district and Downtown Inc.
“If there is no agreement, then disestablishment is definitely an option,” Alvarez said.
She didn’t mince words about the near future in the gentrification battle. “It’s going to get ugly,” she said.