The Santa Ana City Council Tuesday night is scheduled to discuss creating a “wellness district” in the city’s downtown core that would affirm its Latino character and promote the health and well being of the area’s working-class residents.
The proposed district is in response to a study last year by economist Jeb Bruegmann that found Central Santa Ana residents to be a largely untapped economic resource in the downtown.
According to Bruegmann’s study, which was funded by the California Endowment, the city could bring in an additional $137 million in spending to the downtown by creating a Latino business corridor that focuses on bringing back customers who, despite living so close to the downtown, have been lost to big-box retailers.
The 16-point resolution calls for, among other things, the official branding of Fourth Street as “La Calle Cuatro,” a nod to the street’s history as an iconic shopping destination for Latino families.
In addition to the Latino branding, the resolution calls for unspecified incentives for businesses selling wellness goods, which Bruegmann’s study defines as groceries, meals, musical instruments, health and personal care products, among other things. It also calls for any business that is committed “to long term provision of good jobs, affordable housing and economic stability for Santa Ana residents” to receive city support.
“I think we’re laying the [groundwork] with the ability to kind of take pride in what we have and what already works, first to recognize and confirm the cultural wealth in Santa Ana,” said Ana Urzua, campaign coordinator with Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities. “What we hope to reinforce is the commitment to people’s right to remain in the city and people’s right to thrive in the city.”
But critics, including some residents, say the district — particularly the Latino branding and some of the messaging about the district – smacks of reverse racism. They argue city leaders should be wary of being unwelcoming to newcomers who visit the upscale restaurants that have popped up in recent years and turned the downtown into an artisan food destination.
“It feels like they’re trying to go back to the way it used to be 20 years ago, when it wasn’t as diverse a destination as it is now,” said Santa Ana resident David Hoen. “I think diversity is a great thing, so I like the progress that’s being made. I feel like propping up the past is not embracing the future.”
Council members are also divided on this point.
Councilman Sal Tinajero, who has championed the involvement of working-class residents at City Hall, said he too has concerns about the city branding the downtown a Latino destination. He said the downtown is “on a roll” and doesn’t want to slow down that progress.
Promoting some businesses over others is where the district starts to become “murky,” he said.
Councilman Vincent Sarmiento disagrees. He says the branding could be an effective marketing tool, like Little Saigon in Westminster or the widely known Olvera Street in Los Angeles.
“I think to celebrate an area’s ethnic influences, I don’t think is a bad thing,” Sarmiento said. “I don’t think Olvera Street in downtown means you have to be Mexican to go.”
Urzua says any interpretation that the wellness district is exclusionary is “absolutely not true” and that, if anything, it’s meant to ensure that residents who have been excluded from City Hall more often than not continue to have a place in the city.
“I think more than anything we wanted to demonstrate that [the district] is not to the exclusion to the [new] development, but rather ensuring that development benefits everyone,” Urzua said.
To that end, activists and representatives of new downtown establishments have negotiated new language into the resolution creating the district, such as including the words “remaining inclusive of commuting, visiting, and newly settled populations.”
But while such clauses show some progress toward bridging the gap between supporters of the downtown changes and proponents of the wellness district, the gap remains wide. Hoen and others refer to some of the district’s economic development tenets as “socialism.”
Several of the provisions have widespread support, even among critics. They include working with the Orange County Health Care agency to establish a baseline that can be used to monitor success in “health and economic development outcomes,” and infrastructure improvements that promote safety and walkability of the downtown.
There are also more specific economic and cultural incentives, including the establishment of community micro-farms; a city-owned building lease for a Latino mercadito with vending opportunities for Santa Ana artisans and craftmakers; creation of an office of immigrant affairs; and support of Latino cultural events.
A key player in the drama is Ryan Chase, whose family owns much of the property on Fourth Street and is most responsible for the city’s resurgent restaurant and bar scene. Chase insists he isn’t against a resolution that promotes health, but says the current version isn’t yet balanced enough to protect business interests.
“I think it still needs probably a little tweaking. From draft one until now it’s definitely gone in the right direction I would say,” Chase said. “I want health and wellness, and I want tax generation for the city.”
As for whether a city resolution can save space for working-class residents in the downtown, Chase says that won’t be up to the city, or anyone in particular. He says market forces will ultimately be the deciding factor. Though he said the mix of old and new in the downtown is part of the “cool factor.”
“I think at the end of the day, the market dictates what needs to happen. That’s just capitalism… that’s America,” Chase said.
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