The Santora Arts Building, located in the heart of downtown Santa Ana’s Artists Village, has long been touted as a catalyst of the area’s emergence as an arts center and its more recent transformation into a bustling nightlife destination.

But over the past year or so, the Santora has undergone a subtle but noticeable change. Gone are the famed studios of the late theater designer Joe Musil and Latino artist Moises Camacho. New tenants include law firms and a catering company that rented the space Musil occupied for nearly two decades.

Artists still occupy most of the building’s space. But a core group who’ve been in the Santora for years are growing increasingly worried that building owner Mike Harrah will push them out as Santa Ana’s downtown is gentrified and rents rise.

These fears have been exacerbated by the discovery of a recently expired contract between Harrah and the city that required him to designate 80 percent of the building’s leasable space to the arts.

The artists, who had long suspected but could not prove that such a contract existed, worry that Harrah will use its expiration to replace them with better-paying tenants.

“I want to know if I have a future to invest in here,” said artist Matthew Southgate, who runs a studio in the building’s basement.

Harrah meanwhile says he will still honor the spirit of the agreement and has no plans to push the artists out. “It’s going to stay an arts-focused type of building. It’s 100 percent leased. We have leases there. The tenants are going to stay,” Harrah said.

Southgate and other artists who have been active on the issue are happy to hear Harrah make that pledge, but they cite recent events that make them uneasy about both Harrah and the city.

At a community meeting last year, then-Community Development Director Cindy Nelson denied that the city had an agreement with Harrah to dedicate space at the Santora for the arts. That was proved false by an artist who obtained a copy of the agreement under the California Public Records Act.

There were battles over the placement of plastic, box-frame signs on the facade of the Santora and the start of a valet parking service in front of the building.

Harrah’s signs directed potential art patrons to his sports bar and restaurant, Original Mike’s. No-parking zones and a valet parking service were created on Broadway so well-heeled patrons of the area’s bars and restaurants need not search for parking.

The artists responded by forming a group called the Artists Village Alliance of Santa Ana and loudly protesting both actions.

But the consequences of their activism were painful. Harrah started pressuring some artists who were behind in their rent to pay or leave. At least one artist called it a show of force in response to their speaking out.

Leaders of the artists group now say they have learned from that episode. Though they still want their voices heard, they are willing to take a more diplomatic approach.

At a recent City Council meeting, artist Alicia Rojas, who discovered the expired agreement, extended an invitation to restart talks with the city regarding how to sustain Artists Village.

“We are here to ask for a new partnership to build a new bridge that will bring the city, artists and its citizens back to the drawing board,” Rojas said. The remarks were also part of a letter that Rojas sent to council members.

And Harrah seems willing to do his part to make sure the Santora remains true to its artistic roots.

“We’re trying to subsidize them so they can stay,” Harrah said.

But it does not appear that this new spirit of cooperation will produce a new written agreement that the building have an 80-percent artists occupancy rate.

City spokesman Jose Gonzalez said there have been no talks at City Hall about entering into such an agreement with Harrah.

Council members Vincent Sarmiento and David Benavides said that they would like to keep the lines of communication open.

Sarmiento said revisiting the agreement with Harrah was a discussion worth having. “I think its certainly a relevant discussion to have,” Sarmiento said. “The good news is you have some owners and operators that realize there is a benefit to continue the artists’ presence in the downtown.”

Sarmiento added that Chapman University is considering adding a satellite campus in the downtown. Such additions would help maintain the downtown’s arts environment, he said.

Councilman Sal Tinajero said the artists issue has been on the back burner because of ongoing efforts to solve the city’s budget crisis. The city has been scrambling to close a $30-million budget deficit going into next fiscal year.

The council ward that includes the downtown belongs to Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who is also a candidate for the 69th Assembly District.

Martinez had been in close communication with the artists. She was offended, however, after some complained to a reporter that she wouldn’t place on a council agenda Occupy Santa Ana’s request for overnight camping at the Civic Center, which involved some of the artists. The issue was described as a misunderstanding, but Martinez cut the communications pipeline.

Whether Martinez is willing to reconnect with the artists is unclear. She did not return phone calls for comment.

Disclosure: Voice of OC is a Santora tenant.

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