Downtown Santa Ana’s Latino small business owners occupied a restricted construction zone Wednesday to protest the ongoing OC Streetcar construction, which they say has killed off their sales.

Shouting against the wind on Wednesday morning, an elderly juice and bagel shop owner climbed a dirt mound in a ditch that used to be a paved road along Santa Ana’s Fourth Street but is set to become a part of a 4-mile streetcar track by 2024. 

Standing behind bagelry owner Maria Perez inside the construction ditch was a group of Fourth Street’s other shop owners, doing business in an area known culturally as La Cuatro: 

Bridal dressmakers, general stores, Latino travel agencies, tax services – businesses which, their owners say, don’t exactly fit in with the image of bars and restaurants that some in town want this area to be known for. 

“Come on, don’t be scared, come on up here,” shouted Perez to the others who then quickly scaled the dirt mound around her. 

At the same time, a tractor made its way toward the group from Broadway and Fourth, to resume work in the area. Upon seeing the crowd in the off-limits construction zone, its driver stopped and left. 

For the shop owners, that was the goal. 

Shop owners who turned out as early as 6 a.m. told Voice of OC they had no other options, after fruitless attempts to reach their representative Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, as well as those from the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) who’s overseeing the project.

Martin Ocampo, a restaurant bar owner, says takeout orders are often not picked up because of the parking problems or confusing street closures. 

“Yearly we would make $450,000, making roughly $3,000 a day, but now make $400 dollars a day,” Ocampo said, adding he’s been in business in downtown for 10 years. 

The protest forced an impromptu town hall Wednesday afternoon between the downtown merchants, who again stood in the construction zone, and three local elected officials: 

By Wednesday afternoon, Sarmiento and Hernandez – joined by Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, whose newly redrawn county district now includes the area – showed up to talk to small business owners who at this point refused to budge.

Left, Ana Laura Padilla, hands over a list of demands to Councilman Jonathan Ryan Hernandez, who represents the area in which the OCTA Streetcar construction is located. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

One person in the crowd told council members in Spanish, “Yesterday we received calls from your offices asking what we needed so that we don’t protest. The only thing we asked was to speak to you. That was the only thing we asked for. That’s why we had to do something drastic because we want to see change now.”

Sarmiento and Hernandez told merchants they would relay their grievances in meetings with OCTA by Friday – and asked that protesters in the meantime stay out of the dirt construction pits. 

Protestors stand on a dirt mound protesting the OCTA streetcar construction. Construction was immediately halted once the protestors climbed the dirt hill. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In response, merchants seemed to accept the timeline given to them, but said they would be back in the dirt if things were not resolved after Friday.

The issue also put attention on areas of the city similarly disrupted by streetcar construction, such as the Artesia Pilar neighborhood, but without outcry from commercial interests – a point which sparked social media debate the night before Wednesday’s protest. 

Earlier Wednesday morning, a city employee in a hard hat warned protesters they might get in trouble for entering the construction zone.

Yet many of those who have done business on Fourth Street for decades didn’t back down.  

Instead, they asked for the employee’s name. 

Shopkeepers say their livelihoods are on the line.

And they’re demanding that city and county transit officials – as well as the downtown business liaisons who are supposed to represent their interests – start paying up for the financial damage.

Namely, some that morning called for direct small business grants during a group conversation with Foley, the county supervisor, who also met with shopkeepers earlier in the day on the street.

“These are legitimate concerns. There’s nothing unreasonable about your requests,” Foley told the crowd.

Business owners and community members took to the construction site to protest the street demolition and demand help from local officials. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, who now represents this area following a redrawing of the Board of Supervisors’ district maps, speaks to the crowd of protesters while also hearing their concerns during the early morning protest on Feb. 9, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The merchants say they also want more large-scale signage instructing visitors on parking locations and how to access shops. 

“We want to create a bigger statement,” said Ana Laura Padilla, a protest organizer who stood in front of the professional tax services center she runs, pointing to the signs and chairs she and others set up in the middle of the construction zone while the sun was still coming up.

She and others say they’ve made multiple attempts, with little success, to make appointments with city and OCTA leaders to voice their concerns.

Their complaints about streetcar construction impacts aren’t new. 

They’ve been adding up for years.

“On top of the construction, people think we are closed because we close our doors but it is because of the dirt,” said Ocampo, the restaurant and bar owner, as dirt kicked up in the wind behind him. 

In a Wednesday emailed statement, OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter said, “We understand that dust is a concern, especially with the start of work this week that included removal of trees and the high wind conditions.”

Carpenter said people with construction concerns should call 844-746-6272.

Dust kicks up due to the early morning wind. Many owners are concerned about the dirt, saying it has caused them a multitude of issues. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In 2017, Madeleine Spencer of the Santa Ana Business Council – an organization that is fueled by tax money collected from downtown businesses and is tasked with promoting them and attracting visitors to the area – rang these alarms. 

In a Voice of OC op-ed that year, she publicly called on Santa Ana and OCTA officials 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.”

Spencer mentioned that hundreds of shopkeepers had pressed for such action as early as the environmental studies about the project. 

Construction on the project began in 2019. 

Carpenter said “the current construction on Fourth Street began the first week of February and we have been notifying businesses and residents specifically of the timeline for the past month, after months and months of letting businesses and residents know it would be coming.”

“In early January, OCTA walked to businesses and handed fliers to alert them to the work. The last week of January, we also walked the community to alert them that work would begin the following week,” Carpenter wrote in a Wednesday email.

In a Wednesday phone interview five years after her 2017 op-ed, Spencer said, “This is at a stage where people are at their wit’s end in downtown.”

Protesters who spoke to Voice of OC on Wednesday also aimed their ire at the Santa Ana Business Council, which Spencer herself leads as a staffer. 

Caroline Romero, who protested Wednesday on behalf of Shelsye’s Bridal and Banquet, voiced frustration with the Santa Ana Business Council as well as another promotion group which is supposed to look out for the downtown businesses: Downtown, Inc. 

Together, the two groups run the Business Improvement District.

Merchants pay money into the district, which is then supposed to turn that around in the form of security and promotional services. 

The district’s money, which is collected from the businesses through license taxes, is formally dispersed by the Santa Ana City Council. 

Yet, Romero said, there’s been a disconnect between these organizations and the Spanish-speaking Latino business owners in the area.

“These groups have existed for a while. There are businesses here who have been here for 30-plus years who have never heard of them,” Romero said as protesters began a march around Fourth Street in the morning.

Progressive community activists have historically associated Downtown, Inc. and the Santa Ana Business Council with one of the area’s main property owners, the Chase Family, and with the area’s shrinking Latino cultural footprint.

A construction worker approaches the protesters warning that they could get in trouble for trespassing. “We know, but it’s ok,” said Laura Ana Padilla, an organizer of the protest. The crowd of protestors asked him for his name, but walked away in silence. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Spencer, responding to this criticism, said the organization is doing the best it can with the budget it has and represents nearly 800 businesses.

“What they pay for is, when they wake up in the morning, it (the area) is clean, it’s safe in terms of having security, it also provides them with service of having a general marketing budget,” Spencer said, adding the organizations’ scope is limited by its budget and by its design. 

The organization chiefly markets the area through large events. 

Spencer described the strategy as “bringing people down to see multiple parts of the district like Dancing in the Streets, Artwalk, Loteria Sunday, all these festivals – they actually help us to market the district more widely.”

At the impromptu afternoon town hall, Padilla, who also runs Perla Mexican Cuisine, said she and other merchants only recently learned of an agreement between the downtown organizations and OCTA – to provide $400,000 to the two downtown groups over two years. 

“And we asked, ‘What do you do with that (money)?’ The answer was, ‘We did Salsa Nights.’ How is a Salsa Night going to benefit any of us? … The only person who knows what a business needs is the business owner,” Padilla said.

Spencer, in response during a Wednesday phone interview, said the money from OCTA was restricted for marketing purposes. She also said her organization plans on making disclosures of its spending available on the business council’s website. 

Padilla also said during the town hall that, in her experience owning both a restaurant and a tax services firm on the same street, she’s seen firsthand “the two faces” of the downtown groups in terms of how much they support and promote one type of business versus the other. 

“I’m on two sides. I have a business in food where I get a lot of publicity and they do help me, and then I have a business on the other side …” Padilla said. 

When asked about that, Spencer said her organization understands how to help certain types of businesses more than others – take restaurants, for example: “We know how to promote the restaurants because we developed that (business) sector.”

Spencer said the group is hammering out a new system on how to serve more types of businesses that are typically underserved.

Vicky Cerpas (middle), 53, says she’s her family’s main source of income but struggles with the loss of sales due not only to the pandemic, but the added street closures of downtown Santa Ana. Not only has the construction affected her business but her health as well. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“There are 133 business sectors in downtown. In the past seven years, we’ve only been able to fully organize about four of them,” Spencer said.

The merchants’ concerns echo those voiced in a public meeting last year by Sarah Rafael Garcia, the founder of Santa Ana’s only bookstore and arts cooperative, Libromobile. 

“As a business owner, I am requesting more equitable practices for the community, instead of paying the same people year-after-year to do the same type of work” for only a few “downtown businesses,” Garcia said at the Santa Ana City Council’s Dec. 7 meeting. 

The Streetcar – a passion project of former Santa Ana mayor Miguel Pulido – has been in the planning for years.

“We understand that,” Romero said Wednesday morning. “We were maybe notified a week before – a couple of days before – they completely closed off the streets. That’s one thing. But they said (previously) that they would close off the streets by segments.”

“They said that they were going to work fast. We only see them working maybe one or two hours for the day,” Romero said.

Overall, Carpenter of OCTA said “several factors have led to project delays, including contaminated soil, unmarked utilities in the street, unexpected rail ties and the discovery of cultural remains that needed to be properly relocated.”

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