At sunrise, workers in hard hats arrived in Downtown Santa Ana on Wednesday to find a brand-new white quinceañera dress, accented by silver and gold embroidery, standing in the middle of an open-air, dirt construction trench.

The area’s Fourth Street had been torn open so tracks for the long-awaited OC Streetcar could be laid in the dirt.

The dress cost around $1,200 to make, said its maker, Valentin Martinez, the 25-year owner of Nino’s Bridal Couture nearby, who erected it on a mannequin inside the trench while the sky was still dark. 

He said he’d normally sell it at $1,500 to turn a profit. 

But there’s not much business around La Cuatro these days.

For two months, streetcar construction overseen by the county’s transit agency, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), has squeezed the pedestrian paths and vehicle traffic that many of the stores along this downtown road rely on.

The dust might dirty it, the light could damage it, yet Martinez argued the dress would otherwise go unpurchased, with so few people currently bothering to navigate what’s become a hard-to-traverse OC Streetcar construction zone over the area. 

So, Martinez’s dress had a different use that morning — no longer something to be worn, but a message to be sent. 

“It’s a ghost town.” Ana Laura Padilla of Themis Income Tax in downtown Santa Ana said that city officials should be treating the situation as an emergency to avoid local merchants from experiencing failure and foreclosure. Padilla also demands better safety precautions for pedestrians and proper signage around the construction area. “If this (project) was happening in Huntington Beach, it wouldn’t look like this,” said Padilla.
Downtown Santa Ana business owners and employees position themselves at the center of the Orange County Streetcar construction site on Fourth Street, demanding the release of the economic aid promised by city council members to recover from the loss in business due to the project. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

Since construction began on the Fourth Street section of the 4-mile, $509 million streetcar project – which is set to finish in 2024 and will run between Santa Ana and Garden Grove in its entirety  – “I’ve seen a 60% to 80% drop in business,” Martinez said.

This is the second time he and a group of Latino store owners and downtown tenants – seeing plummeting sales, an existential threat to their livelihoods, and few other options – have taken up signs, right where tracks and platform foundations are now being installed. 

Before construction, “I was making a comfortable living,” said Shawn Makhani, the nearly 32-year owner of Telas Fabrics. 

“Right now? Zero,” he said. “I can tell you honestly, yesterday, how much I sold … seriously this is not a joke … Here’s how much I sold yesterday: $3.” 

“I swear. One customer. And actually, the customer was one of the ladies that own a bridal shop here. She came in and bought one yard of fabric. $3. Yesterday,” Makhani said, shaking his head, speaking to a reporter from the trench below a pedestrian walkway bridge. 

“Most of us have been here for a long time. And that shows that we were fine. We were doing relatively good business. That’s why we were happy and we stayed here,” Makhani said.

Orange County Streetcar construction site at Fourth Street in downtown Santa Ana on March 30, 2022. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

The first protest in which business owners occupied the construction zone – even stopping a tractor, at one point – was seven weeks ago, on Feb. 9. 

Since then, the Santa Ana City Council approved a $1.5 million assistance fund for shops that saw sales plummet because of the construction work. 

That amounts to around $10,000 per business. City officials are trying to find areas in the budget for more. 

Staff at a March 15 City Council meeting said the city got 134 applications from downtown merchants for the bailout money so far, and nearly 60 of those applications were approved for payment as of that day. 

“Businesses are expected to start seeing payments this Friday (March 18), and as construction moves down Fourth Street, more businesses will become eligible for the program,” said Economic Development Manager Marc Morley at that meeting.

Two weeks later, some business owners were wondering when their applications would be processed and when those city checks would start to clear.

A flyer business owners passed around Wednesday morning purported that only a fraction of the available city funding has made its way to downtown businesses.

“There’s still a lot of businesses that have not received the money,” said Ana Laura Padilla, the owner of a personal accounting business and a restaurant, Perla Mexican Cuisine, downtown.

On Wednesday, City of Santa Ana spokesperson Paul Eakins said “23 businesses have received payment and another 32 applications have been approved or are pending final approval,” to date, “to receive their grant payment in the coming days.” 

“The City received another 62 applications that were missing documentation or that do not qualify at this time,” Eakins said, adding in a separate phone call that the grant funding is currently limited to those impacted by the Fourth Street construction area, so not every business in downtown will currently qualify.

A child holds a sign at the center of the Orange County Streetcar project construction site on early Wednesday morning on March 30, 2022. Businesses are failing due to poor construction planning, merchants say. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

“The City is continuing to work with any eligible businesses to help them complete their application and receive the funds as soon as possible,” Eakins said, in an earlier Wednesday email. 

The city has also provided free parking in its downtown parking structures, but for limited time windows. 

As of Wednesday, parking was free in the structures from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 2 hours free after 5 p.m. those days. Visitors also get 2 hours free on weekends, Eakins said. 

Downtown merchants on Wednesday said the City of Santa Ana has been the more responsive agency throughout the debacle. 

Much of the ire on Wednesday was directed at OCTA.

OCTA officials have hired a security guard to patrol the area. Officials say they’re promoting businesses on social media, through their “Eat Shop Play” program. They’ve also increased the amount of signage advertising businesses to visitors along the downtown core.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, OCTA spokesperson Joel Zlotnik said, “The OCTA project team, since work began, has increased security in the area, inspects the work site daily, and has added extensive fencing and signage.” 

An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy talks with protesters at the Orange County Streetcar construction site in downtown Santa Ana on March 30, 2022. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)
Downtown Santa Ana merchants say they have experienced as much as an 80% loss in revenue and foot traffic. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

“That additional signage has included ‘open for business’ signs and additional signs to direct customers around construction and to help them find businesses and parking,” Zlotnik wrote.

Despite all this, signs lambasting the agency were still in protesters’ hands on Wednesday. 

Business owners say the mitigation measures the agency’s taken thus far haven’t helped much. They want the agency to fork over some money, as well, seeing the agency as their pain’s driving cause. OCTA has all but declined to.

Some of Wednesday’s protest signs asked Supervisor Katrina Foley where the help was, seven weeks after she showed up to meet protesters at their first demonstration on the same street, as her newly redrawn supervisor district now includes the area.

In a Monday letter to OCTA, Foley – who sits on the agency’s board of directors – had that same question herself. 

“I am urging that the OCTA Board of Directors establish a Business Impact Grant program to assist all 4th Street businesses affected by the OC Streetcar,” she wrote, questioning the effectiveness of the advertising signage that OCTA put up.

She added: “The stakes for these businesses could not be higher, many of them rely on out-of-town customers. The construction combined with the lack of adequate signage is having a disproportionately negative impact on their business, and I am afraid that many will go out of business.”

Orange County Streetcar construction workers in downtown Santa Ana take measurements beside a quinceañera dress on display at the center of the site on March 30, 2022. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

Zlotnik said OCTA is coordinating with the project’s construction contractor, Walsh Construction, “to increase work hours in the area with the goal of completing the work faster.”

“We have also enhanced marketing and outreach efforts, buying Spanish and English radio and newspaper advertisements promoting business on Fourth Street throughout the region, and using geofencing to target potential customers on social media,” Zlotnik wrote.

On March 28, the agency emailed an alert about construction work interrupting traffic at various parts of town – work which would, for example, require the full closure of a couple of two-block segments along 4th Street.

In response, within the same hour, a flustered email populated the inboxes of county and city officials from Alta Baja Market, owned by Delilah Snell, out of the 4th Street Market food stall center.

“This is your form of ‘notifying’ the businesses you are harming? A Constant Contact newsletter that people will hopefully open within a few days (maybe), and then have to brace for the impact?” the email reads.

“You have given ZERO notice of cutting off another one of our arteries. You cannot expect us to navigate this without assistance,” it adds. “All I have received are excuses, diversion and incompetence … The communication on this level is not even doing the job.”

“It’s like a war happening without arms.” Javier Meneses of Latino American Services in downtown Santa Ana said that the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) did not ask for the input of small business owners regarding the OC Streetcar project before beginning construction. Meneses mentioned that it looks as if everyone involved in the project is making money off of it besides the businesses that surround the construction. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

The Streetcar issue is a multifaceted one, where debates about public transit and downtown Santa Ana’s gentrification collide. 

On one hand, it’s a symbolic, $500 million mass transit investment in a region where public transportation advocates see car-dominant infrastructure coming at the poor’s expense. 

On the other hand, some question how much public transit promise actually lies in a 4-mile, 10-stop streetcar route. 

“The State of California is moving towards more public transit,” wrote Foley in a letter to OCTA’s Board of Directors on Monday. “This is our trial run to set our agency up for success or inflict catastrophic [sic] to OCTA’s reputation. If we are proactive, we will not only save these businesses but elevate OCTA to be a true leader for a more efficient, cleaner, and fairer transit system.”

All the while, the construction’s financial threat to Latino-owned bridal shops, general stores, tailors, and travel agencies has pushed longstanding concerns over downtown’s fading Latino footprint to the edge. 

“We’re trying to stay here. My feeling is that they’re trying to destroy our community. They’re hitting our community. They’re trying to divide us. They’re trying to move us away from here,” said Marcela Rodriguez, who’s run her travel agency, Holiday Travel, on the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway for nearly 30 years. 

“That’s what I feel,” she said. “That’s what I see.” 

Photographer Omar Sanchez contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.