Santa Ana:  Epicenter of the New Creative Urbanism

Santa Ana is an on-trend destination a century in the making

What’s old is new again in 2018. Plus, trendier, tastier and infinitely more creative than you remember or ever thought possible.

Santa Ana, the government seat and second-oldest city in Orange County, has been reborn as one of the region’s trendiest destinations for short- and long-term visitors looking for a creative urban vibe. After allowing its culturally diverse roots to quietly fly under the radar for years, the city of more than 330,000 is embracing its eclecticism – as well as the tens of thousands of foodies, nightlife fans, entrepreneurs and new residents flocking here every month.

From a visitor attractions-per-square-mile standpoint, California’s 11th largest city offers a convincing case for its broadening appeal: 490 restaurants, 60 art galleries, seven thriving retail sectors, two regional destination museums, one performing arts theater, one leading e-sports arena and the region’s most acclaimed performing arts high school.

“If it’s happening in Southern California, it’s likely happening in Santa Ana,” explained Marc Morley, the City’s economic development specialist. “Like no other city in the Southland, Santa Ana serves as a microcosm of what an urban destination can look like.”

Knowing that day and long-term visitors are irrelevant if they come at the expense of local resident and business growth, brokers point to a surge in new residential and office space designed to keep pace with the explosion of urban tourism.  Among the highlights are the $500 million One Broadway Plaza, on track to be OC’s tallest office building by 2020, and $1 billion 625IVE The Gateway, the proposed 2.3 million-square-square-foot makeover of the former Orange County Register site that includes office and retail space, apartments and condominiums, a hotel, community and recreational facilities and open space.

Dozens of residential projects will also bring more than 3,400 affordable and luxury housing units to the city – much of it clustered in the creative downtown or adjacent to the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center and proposed OC Streetcar that will connect the station with Santa Ana’s East End, downtown and Civic Center neighborhoods.

“What outsiders may not realize is how hard we work to maintain the balance between accommodating these visitors and maintaining Santa Ana’s historic urban identity and tradition of community involvement,” said Morley. “We never forget that today’s urban explorers in search of food, art, culture and creative working and living environments choose Santa Ana precisely because it isn’t like the rest of Southern California. Maintaining that sense of specialness remains our top priority.”

Santa Ana is supported by hundreds of community-based organizations including more than 200 nonprofit agencies and 100 faith-based organizations, 25 service clubs and close to 50 parent groups at schools. Residents are active in 64 separate neighborhood associations covering most of the City’s 27.5 square miles – an astonishing number for a city of any size.

Prime examples of blending the new with the old – specifically, the 60 historic buildings throughout downtown Santa Ana – include 4th Street Market, home to 15 innovative food stalls, the East End Incubator Kitchens and FoodBeast’s Kitchen Studio; and the 1922-4 Grand Central Building, converted in 1994 into the Grand Central Art Center, a student- and artist-in residence partnership between the City and California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), College of the Arts, that helped inspire creation of Santa Ana’s now burgeoning Artists Village.

In 2000, the Artists Village was expanded when ad agency DGWB (now Amusement Park) purchased and redeveloped the 1935 Art Deco-style Santa Ana City Hall building into its loft-like home and studios, and offices for other media and creative firms wanting a base in the City’s expanding creative neighborhood.

“While the move from Irvine to Santa Ana was only 10 miles on a map, it represented an epic shift for us from a creative standpoint,” said Mike Weisman, one of four original DGWB founders who now co-chairs the Economic Development Council of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce. “I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have experienced half the success – or half the creative awards – had we not made the move.”

Commitments by CSUF and Amusement Park led to the development of new live-work projects throughout the Artists Village which, in turn, sparked more new restaurants, boutiques and galleries such as the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.

Foodie Explosion

4th Street Market is only one of many foodie explosions happening throughout downtown Santa Ana – which Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold calls “one of the most unlikely culinary neighborhoods in the state, dotted with cocktail bars, tapas joints and …you are rarely more than a few steps away from a taco, a quinceañera dress or shade-grown coffee.”

Jason Quinn changed the local food scene forever when, after winning TV’s Great Food Truck Race in 2011, he chose Santa Ana for his first brick-and-mortar gastropub, Playground. Around the same time several blocks away, Orange County restauranteur Jeff Jensen was writing his own story for the corner of Third Street and Broadway called Chapter One: The Modern Local, serving a new take on pub fare made with local produce and seasonal ingredients from around the world.

Together, the two restaurants along with Gypsy Den and Lola Gasper in 2008, helped usher in a plethora of East End and downtown culinary destinations ranging from deli (C4 Deli) to teriyaki Asian-fusion (Ninjas with Appetite) to Venezuelan (Mil Jugos) to Filipino (Irenia) to trendy-but-authentic Mexican (Hector’s on Broadway).

Retail Entrepreneurialism

Probably Santa Ana’s most unexpected transformation is in retail – which, unlike most cities, includes seismic shifts at both ends of the retail spectrum: traditional malls and independent retailers. Interspersed among the quintessential Hispanic businesses are exclusive boutiques like Blends and Rif that are adding Santa Ana’s 4th Street to their list of trend-driven addresses that include Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, L.A.’s Larchmont Village and San Francisco’s Post Street.

Three miles up Main Street, Jonathan Maher and Chris Yates at the MainPlace Mall are reinventing the role of suburban mall as retail incubator. As part of a larger plan to reimagine the 1.1 million-square-foot facility dating back to 1958, they are wooing the colorful, hyper-local tenants you rarely find in a mall – such as the authentic Mexican torta and fruit juice restaurant Cancun Juice. Brothers Hector and Antonio Alvarez never considered expanding their exclusively Orange County chain to the local mall until Maher and Yates convinced them of their vision – which includes expanding the facility into more of an entertainment- and events-driven destination and adding a hotel, offices and apartments.

Arts and Culture

For a city approaching its Sesquicentennial in 2019 and long regarded as the county’s cultural capital, Santa Ana is bound to offer a dual personality with respect to culture and the arts. Certainly, for every world-class exhibit at the acclaimed Bowers Museum or don’t-miss family celebration at the Discovery Cube Orange County, there is a student performance at Orange County School of the Arts, a showing of autographed guitars and other memorabilia at the Rock and Roll Emporium or an exhibit of the avant-garde at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.

Like almost nowhere else in California, artistic variety is the spice of life here. Santa Ana Sites, a unique mashup of community partnership and traveling forum, presents contemporary performances in public and private spaces throughout downtown. Providing the one continuum since 1999 has been the First Saturday Downtown Santa Ana Artwalk, which attracts up to  5,000 people every month looking to explore dozens of galleries, museums, artisan street vendors, live performances and the latest reminders of Santa Ana’s cultural dominance.