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Photo by: Tenaya HillsA young woman walks into Santa Ana's Sol Art Gallery, scruffy guy in tow. Curator Sali Heráldez greets them warmly—they're the first visitors of the day. She offers them something to drink. The couple graciously accepts two cups of water and tries to give Heráldez some money, but she refuses. "We're not a café," Heráldez explains sadly. When the two curiously press for an explanation, the 29-year-old sighs but doesn't answer. As the young woman and scruffy guy talk amongst themselves, Heráldez tells an onlooker, "It's amazing how much longer people will stay if you give them something to drink. Plus," she adds with a knowing wink, "people want to try something other than Starbucks."
Heráldez mentions the Seattle-based coffee conglomerate for a reason. While Starbucks and other chains proliferate in Santa Ana's Artists Village, city officials won't let Heraldez sell a single cup of joe. In a couple of months, a Starbucks will open at the corner of Broadway and Fourth Street near the Santa Ana Artists Village, part of a $2.8 million redevelopment project. A Subway operates on the corner of Broadway and Third, a burp away from famed indie eateries the Gypsy Den and Memphis; a Sav-On recently opened on Main and First across the street from a Rite-Aid. Like Starbucks, all came into Santa Ana with the help of government grants and a streamlined planning process that favors major corporations over entrepreneurs like Heráldez.
As for Heráldez? With no money behind her, no grand urban plan buttressing her effort to create an artists hangout, city officials won't let her sell coffee—or food, paintbrushes or art in her art gallery. She can display art, but she can't sell anything.
"It seems that the city approves big businesses in its Artists Village, instead of small businesses like ours," says Heráldez. She takes a sip from a glass of tea—tea is free here, too.
Heráldez seems like the type of entrepreneur that Santa Ana would want. Born and raised in the city, the wiry artist pooled cash with friends in January and rented a long-abandoned flower shop on Main Street near the Bowers Museum. "The Bowers Museum is expanding, and we want to be a part of that," Heráldez says. She approached Santa Ana's planning department with her group's plan for an art gallery and coffee shop.
Heráldez says city-planning officials were at first warm to her plans, noting that the proposed gallery would sit in a retail zone and therefore qualify to sell coffee. But after Heráldez presented a more comprehensive blueprint a couple of weeks later, she was told the gallery idea was fine but selling coffee under the building's current zoning would violate city ordinances.
"A [city staffer] told me that any proposed café requires 10 parking spaces either in the front or the back," Heráldez said. "When I told them that our building's designated parking spaces were just up the street, she still said we wouldn't qualify. Then I asked her how I could go about changing the zoning on the property. She laughed and said it would take years." In another meeting with a city-development official, Heráldez claims she was informed that the planning commission would probably grant her an exemption "after submitting multiple plans and spending a few thousand dollars."
Jay Treviño, planning director for Santa Ana, told the Weeklyhe wasn't familiar with Heráldez's case but added, "If a particular kind of a business makes sense, the city might be more inclined to allow it. The city adopts regulations of what businesses are allowed based on the city's general welfare. If it doesn't make sense, it might impact surrounding businesses, then it probably wouldn't." He refused to say whether artists would get a break as they have in the past, when Santa Ana poured millions of dollars in redevelopment funds to entice artists to live and exhibit downtown.
"If I could advertise this as a coffee shop, then so many more people would come," Heráldez said. But as it stands, Heráldez still can't afford a spot in the Artists Village nor petition for a business license. She'll continue to give out everything for free.
"This will never be lucrative, and we have no money as it is," says Heráldez. "We want to sell coffee—there's a bank across the street and imagine all the customers! But we're not looking to break any laws. The city will just miss the tax revenue we could bring in."
She stays quiet, then remembers her good manners. "Do you want some water? It's free, you know."