Thursday, August 25, 2011 | Santa Ana Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, speaking during Wednesday night’s council meeting, compared major downtown property owner Irving Chase — who is Jewish — to Adolf Hitler.
Alvarez made the reference and publicly accused Irving Chase and his son Ryan Chase of conducting an “ethnic cleansing” campaign in the city’s downtown core, saying they were essentially plotting to clear out Latino merchants who have owned businesses in the downtown for decades.
Specifically, Alvarez said: “So if Hitler rents you a place and gives you a good deal, do you take it?”
Both Chases stormed out of the meeting upon hearing Alvarez’s comparison.
Irving Chase shouted, “Did you just call me Hitler?”
“My grandparents are Holocaust survivors!” Ryan chase shouted.
Alvarez’s shocking accusation brought Santa Ana’s downtown gentrification debate to a new level just as the City Council voted to shrink the boundaries of a special tax district that some downtown merchants say doubles or triples their tax bills without providing adequate services in return.
Under the new boundaries established Wednesday night, many of the most vocal opponents will no longer be in the district.
The debate over Downtown Inc., the organization funded by the special tax and responsible for promoting and securing the downtown area, seems far from over.
Downtown Inc. supporters say that the organization’s services are vital to transforming the downtown into a vibrant commercial district. Others say the organization, which is chaired by Ryan Chase, is most interested in changing the demographics of downtown.
Alvarez, who has come out forcefully against Downtown Inc. in recent weeks, was relentless Wednesday night in her attacks on the organization and on the Chases in particular.
She went so far as to insinuate that one aim of the special property tax district is to bankrupt downtown property owners so the Chases can swoop in and acquire the buildings.
“I will try my darndest to make sure the Chases don’t take another building,” Alvarez said to loud applause and hoots from property owners.
Alvarez also castigated Downtown Inc. Executive Director Vicky Baxter for receiving retirement benefits from an organization funded by struggling property owners and for paying her husband to work as an independent contractor for the organization.
Alvarez’s Hitler remark drew responses from council members David Benavides and Carlos Bustamante, who distanced themselves from the comment. It also prompted an exchange between Alvarez and Bustamante.
“We don’t allow the constituency to badger us, and I think it’s unfair to badger them, especially since they can’t defend themselves,” said Bustamante, the council’s strongest Downtown Inc. supporter.
“I don’t think you would be allowed to do that in your day job. I don’t think you would be allowed to yell at a judge,” Bustamante said, referring to Alvarez’s position as a deputy district attorney.
Alvarez shot back: “Let’s not start by getting into your day job.” It was unclear what Alvarez meant by that remark. Bustamante works as a manager in Orange County’s public works department and has recently come under fire for taking a taxpayer-funded promotion while rank-and-file employees and services were being cut.
Alvarez stood by her remarks after the meeting, saying that ethnic cleansing was exactly what the Chases were doing. The term usually is reserved for conflicts involving genocide, such as World War II and the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
She went on to say that Irving Chase uses his Jewish identity as a defense against the ethnic cleansing allegation, which has been made by Latinos in downtown to describe what they see as gentrification.
Alvarez had placed setting a public hearing for disestablishment of the special property tax district on the meeting agenda, but council members opted to postpone the item until a council meeting in September.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez, meanwhile, asked that the Downtown Inc. board increase its diversity, improve compliance with the state’s open meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, and change the organization’s bylaws to allow more open membership.
The shrunken boundaries will decrease Downtown Inc.’s annual revenue by more than $226,000, records show.
Baxter said that the proportionality of services will remain the same, but areas that were once patrolled by Downtown Inc.-funded security guards and spruced up by Downtown Inc.-funded street cleaners will no longer receive those services.
“The reality is that people are going to see more garbage in areas that have been clean in the past,” Baxter said. “One of our cleaning guys will lose his job.”