A group of artists concerned about the sale of downtown Santa Ana's Santora building to Newsong Church say City Councilman David Benavides' attendance at the church's services should preclude him from serving on an ad hoc committee examining the sale.
Some artists suspect that Benavides, who is a real estate agent, has a financial interest in the sale. They question whether Benavides is representing the artists', the city's or the church's interests on the committee. He appeared in a video about the building and the city made for the Newsong congregation.
“Just as Councilman [Vincent] Sarmiento and the mayor have recused themselves on the PBID [Property Business Improvement District], we were asking that maybe David could recuse himself,” said artist Alicia Rojas, a founder of United Artists of Santa Ana, whose concern lately has been the Santora sale.
Rojas was referring to the special downtown property tax. Sarmiento and Mayor Miguel Pulido have recused themselves during council discussions on the tax because they have property interests in the downtown.
Benavides says the artists' concerns are understandable but maintains that he has no financial interest in the sale. He says that his relationship with the church allows him to bring church leaders to the negotiating table, making him a key player in crafting an agreement between the artists and the church.
“There's a lot more to be gained by me being on the ad hoc committee than if I recuse myself,” Benavides said. “At that point the buyer doesn't have to be at the table.”
The Santora, with its 1920s Spanish missionary facade and vintage interior, is the anchor building for Artists Village, a gallery and restaurant district that has fueled a revitalization of downtown Santa Ana. But artists' studios have been gradually disappearing from the building, and the artists are anxious about being squeezed out of the district.
Newsong leaders say they have no firm plans for the building. Their purchase, they say, is rooted in a desire to save the Santora from corporate interests that would turn it into a commercial real estate venture. They insist there are no plans to evict the artists.
The artists are negotiating with Newsong to craft an agreement that would protect the arts focus of the building. The contract would be similar to the deal Mike Harrah, the current owner, had with the city requiring him to dedicate 80 percent of the building's leasable space to the arts.
But an agreement with the church isn't as simple. How can the artists, a group with no official affiliation, sign a contract? Can censorship be forbidden through such a contract? Can the church simply replace an art gallery it finds offensive with a collection it finds acceptable?
The artists fear that Benavides, who attended the first meeting regarding the agreement, has the church's agenda in mind.
But Benavides dismisses the concerns, saying that if he left the committee it would lose the person who has the best chance of getting the artists and the church to come to terms.
“Frankly, it would be a lot easier, less stress for me to recuse myself,” Benavides said. But he added, “being a leader is to be involved in the tough situations.”