Three the Hard Way

Marc Yamaoka, Phil Nisco and Chris Alfaro wanted to open a hot new nightspot—But first, they had to fight Santa Ana City Hall

Maybe skateboarding to city hall to meet with officials about opening a business wasn't such a good idea. Maybe if the three young men who are attempting to open the Crosby in downtown Santa Ana's Artists Village had walked into the building at 20 Civic Center Plaza in suits and ties and had been clean-shaven, they could've avoided the exasperating series of roadblocks the city has placed before them. Maybe if the Crosby's principals were older than 25 and had previous business experience, they would have been taken more seriously by SanTana's bureaucrats, and the Crosby would be serving lunch, helping hipsters get their drink on, showcasing Southern California's most talented DJs, flaunting bleeding-edge art on its walls, selling art books and displaying its own streetwear line by now.

Or, maybe not.

Have you tried to open a club or bar in Santa Ana lately? It's typically a grueling process that seems geared to thwart entrepreneurial desire and make potential movers and shakers wonder if they'd be better off following their dreams elsewhere. But Chris Alfaro, Phil Nisco and Marc Yamaoka are determined to launch the Crosby at Fourth and Broadway. They love this downtown neighborhood, they see a void there, and they're willing to do almost whatever the city asks them to do in order to set up shop. But they wonder why the process has to be so excruciating and draining.

The Crosby's owners (from left: Marc Yamaoka, Phil Nisco and Chris Alfaro) envision th space as a "haven of creativity" for their friends, themselves and other free spirits.  Photo by John Gilhooley.
The Crosby's owners (from left: Marc Yamaoka, Phil Nisco and Chris Alfaro) envision th space as a "haven of creativity" for their friends, themselves and other free spirits. Photo by John Gilhooley.

"All of these restrictions are because [the city] doesn't know us or our concept," Alfaro believes, "so that's their way of making sure we don't create this crazy nightclub where people get stabbed every night." But he sees a contradiction in Santa Ana's attitude. "They want to build this area, but they make it incredibly hard for businesses like ours to open up. It's, like, you've seen positive change from where [Santa Ana] was to now; why stop?"

Other downtown entrepreneurs have wondered the same thing.

Dan Bradley, co-owner of Memphis Café, notes that Santa Ana has been cooperative with his company. Even so, it took about six months for Memphis to obtain its liquor license through the Alcoholic Beverage Control's (ABC) annual lottery system.

"What has been challenging is making the ultimate 'vision' that the then-city's elected officials had for the downtown—and specifically the Artists Village—a reality," Bradley says. "This was due in part to already existing codes and regulations that do not really jibe with that vision. Also, many of the city staff and elected officials [who] originally championed the Artists Village have moved on."

Those officials' replacements—and the incumbents—have been giving the Crosby's brain trust migraines. Through bureaucratic ineptitude and an epic regulatory process, Santa Ana depletes potential business owners' time, money and patience, according to Alfaro, who outlines a long trail of woe in the Crosby's city-hall dealings.

"Our suite was zoned for restaurant/retail and was very briefly occupied by another business (a restaurant that was going to be called Starfish, but the owner gave up the entire project at an early stage), which didn't get past the application process for a CUP [conditional-use permit]. We were given advice to use the previous CUP application as a guideline for our own. When we tried to pull their file, it was nowhere to be found in the system. It was in their computer as 'applied for,' but they didn't have a copy of the application anywhere.

"A similar thing happened with our C-3 parking waiver. The waiver for the entire building was approved a few years back when it was retrofitted. We were under the impression that it was all set to go. Then we were told by a different person, on the following day, at the same exact desk, that it was in the computer as 'applied for' by the previous tenant, but was either deleted from the system or never put in for some reason."

Alfaro relates that this kind of aggravation was the rule in the Crosby's dealings with city hall. "There was a lot of misguiding or incomplete information for things we had to handle, bringing us back and forth to different departments with a lot of confusion and waiting on people. There were times when we would get an agenda of things to do; we would do everything, but there was always something left out that we really had to do, or something we didn't even have to do at all. It all depended on who we were talking to at the desk that day."

Then there was the floor-plan-finalizing fiasco in Irvine, the radius-map runaround, the age discrimination . . . Alfaro and co. could fill this entire paper with their frustrating experiences.

*      *      *

In 1989, Santa Ana bohemian/activist Don Cribb conceived the Artists Village to be a catalyst to rejuvenate downtown Santa Ana. Cribb persuaded Mayor Miguel Pulido and other city leaders to lure artists to the area with affordable lofts and encourage innovative businesses. He believed that culture and commerce could combine to strengthen the city's fortunes and help to diminish the violent crimes plaguing the city. Santa Ana's government website proclaims, "Since the development of the Artists Village, more than 30 galleries and art studios, 20 or more museums, theaters, ballet, and educational nonprofit organizations and preservation centers have made downtown their home."

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