A years-long gentrification battle in Santa Ana – balancing the interests of a new generation trying to build an exceptionally urban place and working class Latinos looking for dignified and affordable housing -- continues to grow more complex.
The newest focus of the debate centered this week on a 70-unit low-income apartments project called the Depot at Santiago and located in the station district, an area near the city’s train depot that is supposed to be an anchor for economic revitalization.
Last month, planning commissioners approved the affordable housing project against the protests of residents who own a series of nearby lofts developed in recent years. This week, the loft owners appealed their case to the City Council.
On Tuesday, council members refused that appeal, opting to move forward with the project on 6-0 vote, with Councilman Sal Tinajero absent.
Opinions on the project were sharply split between more affluent residents at the Santiago Lofts and a coalition of mostly Latino activists with the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD.)
Lofts residents and others want to construct a new Orange County downtown, a place of urban exceptionalism that includes creative industry, artisan food, craft beer, and other concepts that have motivated a generation to move away from suburbs and back to cities.
The station district is considered a nucleus for this kind of redevelopment. Lofts residents see the low-income housing project as a threat to the promise they bought into when they purchased the lofts, potentially driving down property values and lacking in creative retail options.
Meanwhile, SACReD and others have been demanding their own priorities at City Hall, like more park space, affordable housing and after-school activities. And they have protested the influx of alcohol that has accompanied the downtown revitalization.
Zabdi Alvarez, a 16-year-old SACReD activist, said her 10-member family has lived in rooms and garages and pleaded with the council to approve the project.
“We are barely scraping by,” Alvarez said. “A project like this would take the weight off our shoulders.”
Others activists said they were offended by comments from lofts residents at the May 12 planning commission meeting regarding the project. The residents were quoted as saying that the project’s commercial floor would bring “rag tag retail,” and that low-income neighbors wouldn’t be “quality” residents.
One lofts resident, Cedric Volk, had said that Santa Ana could become a special place like Laguna Beach.
Those comments drew rebukes from working-class Latinos.
“Working class does not mean no class,” said John Raya, founder of the TKO youth boxing club in central Santa Ana.
Lofts residents said that the comments were regrettable and weren’t opposed to low-income housing per se, only how the project was planned. They said the area is an important entrance to the city – it’s near the city’s train station – and should reflect the city’s new vitality.
And they said it should be mixed-income, not 100-percent affordable housing.
“This is really like the gateway in the city, and it’s really a unique opportunity to make something great,” said Volk, adding that the neighborhood should introduce people to the “Santa Ana ether.”
Sean Coolidge, a lofts resident who also helped open the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market, was visibly frustrated. He said he didn’t hate the project, but was concerned with its traffic entrances and the lack of an exciting retail plan.
“We’re asking for a retail study, a true retail study,” Coolidge said.
Meanwhile, a group of downtown artists affiliated with United Artists of Santa Ana said they were worried about being pushed out of a gentrifying area and supported the project.
Council members praised the project, dismissing lofts residents’ concerns about retail and urban ideals. They said the area had come a long way and that C&C Development would build something special.
“We want dignified housing,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.
Councilman David Benavides said his family growing up could have qualified for low-income housing.
“You know what, I think we turned out alright,” Benavides said. “There is a lot that people from higher means can learn and benefit living next to someone who might not have as much money”
Mayor Miguel Pulido noted that the area would continue to blossom, particularly because of a planned streetcar that will snake through Santa Ana Blvd., connect to the train station and create fertile ground for economic development.
Pulido asked residents to keep believing in their dreams for Santa Ana.
“I think we can lift up the entire city,” Pulido said.