Downtown Santa Ana Businesses Say They’re Suffering as OC Streetcar Construction Closes Roads

BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

OC Streetcar Construction closed down the section of 4th Street and Bush Street during the week of Monday, Sept. 16.

Construction of the Orange County Streetcar is moving ahead in Santa Ana, and it’s forced closures along 4th Street that downtown business owners say plummeted their sales.

Advocates for the business owners say they have for years warned city and transportation officials that the storefronts along the busy thoroughfare would suffer from the road closures, and have asked officials to come up with some type of relief strategy like special grant and loan programs or more advertising and signs.

“It’s killing us. We’re down about 40 percent in business,” said Judy Fleenor, owner of two eateries on the same block on 4th street across from the Ronald Reagan Federal Building: Crave, and the now-closed Fleenor’s.

She said the road closures which began in August “literally shut our doors” at Fleenor’s.

“Fleenor’s was too new of a business,” she said. “I wouldn’t have opened that place had I known this was coming. I would have gotten out of here.”

When Fleenor, during an interview, learned the road closures will continue until 2022, she said: “Oh my god. It will put us out of business (at Crave too). If it goes on that long, we will have to close our doors.”

Frank Farias of Café Cultura on 324 W. 4th Street said on some days, his business sees a 25 to 40 percent dip in business — “it’s that bad.”

“For lunch, we get the people who can walk across the street from work. For people getting in from outside downtown — for those people who aren’t too familiar with the backstreets — it’s Hell.”

Farias said that as a local resident, “just to get my kids to school man, it should be taking me five minutes. It’s taking me 20. That’s only because I know how to get around the backstreets, with six or seven detours.”

Since the major closures on 4th Street began in August, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) officials have posted signs around downtown letting people know that the businesses are still open, and so are the sidewalks. But the closures of multiple blocks over the last few weeks have meant no cars are passing by some of the shops, and there’s no longer parking available right in front of them.

Teresa Saldivar, owner of Teresa’s Jewelers on 223 W. 4th Street, said sales are down “because it’s very difficult for our customers to find parking out front. So it’s like, what can we do?”

BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Teresa Saldivar (right) says she’s spending more money and putting more work into her jewelry business to slow her decline in sales.

“I thought about doing some kind of 30 percent off sale for customers,” Saldivar said, “but then they’re not gonna come anyway because they can’t find parking. So it has taken a toll on us.”

Saldivar said her sales are down by 20 percent — “But we’re working twice as hard.”

She said she’s also “spending a lot more” to “at least stay 20 percent behind, or else we’d probably be right up there” with the other businesses seeing 40 percent downturns in business.

“I’m sure we would,” she said.

Joel Zlotnick, a spokesman for the transportation agency, said while construction won’t end until 2022, the road closures won’t be continuous. They’ll happen at different intervals.

“We notify businesses when there are closures both in general terms and in very specific terms — when there are closures directly in front of the business,” Zlotnick said. “We’re very receptive to the concerns of city businesses and residents in trying to make this project as easy as possible and have as little impact as possible.”

He added OCTA has also worked around certain community events — like the city’s 150th anniversary celebration — to not have closures. Transportation officials have also sent businesses a resource guide with links to things like special discount programs that they can offer to customers.

The guide doesn’t say anything about financial assistance programs from OCTA or the city that the businesses can apply for.

Transportation officials have also posted signs around downtown’s three parking structures letting people know the businesses on 4th Street are still open.

Even those signs, OCTA was “pushed to create,” said Madeleine Spencer, a liaison for downtown businesses at the Santa Ana Business Council.

Spencer has been pushing for relief for businesses — in the form of loans, grants and proper signs around the construction area — since before construction began.

In a 2017 opinion article for Voice of OC, Spencer wrote that her group, the Santa Ana Business Council, has “diligently advocated for over two years for the city of Santa Ana and OCTA to provide a promise of mitigation strategies ensuring small businesses that they will minimize the impacts of construction on their businesses during the building of the Street Car.”

“Thus far, and to our surprise, this plea from small businesses has fallen on deaf ears,” she wrote.

Raul Yanez of Mi Moda Italian Suits at 108 E. 4th Street said Santa Ana officials should help, “but they’re not going to.”

City officials “told us there’s no help a long time ago,” he said.

Daisy Perez at the Santa Ana City Manager’s office deferred all questions about the streetcar to OCTA. She didn’t respond when asked if the city was currently considering any of the grant or loan programs or additional signs for the businesses amid their complaints of falling sales.

BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Advocates for businesses along 4th Street have warned city and transportation officials that the storefronts would suffer from the OC Streetcar construction road closures.

Mayor Miguel Pulido, who’s also on the OCTA Board of Directors, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He’s pushed the streetcar project for years as an engine of economic growth that will bring new business and commercial activity to the areas along its 4-mile stretch between Santa Ana and Garden Grove.

“That’s what the city says,” Yanez said. “I need to see it.”

Saldivar said she “would have liked for the city to help us out before construction, of course, but I am willing to sit down at the table and discuss with them how they can help us. I also believe we should give them ideas.”

Some of Saldivar’s ideas include tax relief, and special waiving of parking structure fees for potential customers on the weekends.

The idea of lobbying the City Council sounds nice, Fleenor said, but “you have to do that 24/7, which I don’t have the time. I work. Nobody’s gotten anywhere so far. I don’t have the time to spend all day chasing city officials that don’t care about us.”

Fleenor said “it’s like pulling teeth. The city won’t do anything. The city’s never helped us … they’re supposed to be advertising and drawing people in, but they don’t.”

The businesses also can’t seek legal remedies from the city or transportation agency as a result of suffering sales.

Every year the city sends $100,000 — from a “Downtown Merchants Fund” — to the Santa Ana Business Council, which then disperses the money to things like marketing, events, and training for business owners in the area.

But a provision in that funding contract with the city places an embargo on the 796 downtown merchants the Business Council represents and limits them from litigating against any damages or harm that may be caused or related to the OC Streetcar Project, according to Spencer.

A breach of the streetcar clause could prompt the city to withhold all of the funding, according to the contract.

Other streetcar projects around the U.S. have similarly irked the surrounding businesses. Road closures in cities like Tucson, Arizona and Kansas City, Missouri had drawn pushback from the businesses that said they might not survive the lack of pedestrian and car traffic passing by their storefronts amid the construction.

Spencer said her “dedicated goal” has been to protect the businesses in downtown Santa Ana, and that “I essentially at this point feel like I failed.”

Fleenor said her business has been “around here forever, and we’ve never seen anything this drastic that’s hurt business.”

“Nothing happens here. The city won’t listen to you,” she said. “Unless you’re somebody. That’s how it is.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.