By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
By Daniel Kohn
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.
"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."
A former member of the environmental-transportation-advisory commission and now on the Santa Ana Council of Arts and Culture, Cribb recalls, "When we started Artists Village, it seemed like Santa Ana had become so unacceptable to Orange County that the idea of putting the arts (largely considered the domain of upper classes) there [was incomprehensible]. Of course, the administration itself thought it was ridiculous. They said, 'Don, you'll turn downtown into nothing but homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts if we support the arts there.' My response was, 'What's your point?' Santa Ana was so derelict then, anything would've been an improvement. What were they protecting? You don't protect disadvantage. You protect opportunity. There was no opportunity."
Cribb considers Santa Ana's current leadership to be as myopic and unadventurous as its predecessors. He expresses disgust over the troubles besetting the Crosby, which he views as "the legitimate future of Santa Ana. You have [ethnically diverse individuals] who are young and pushing experimental concepts. I am excited for the Crosby and will do anything I can to help them."
* * *
The Crosby's saga is noteworthy not only because it underscores Santa Ana's problematic attitude and policies toward progressive businesses, but also because of the grandiose ambitions of its owners. Alfaro (25), Nisco (24) and Yamaoka (23) view the Crosby as a "haven of creativity" that will promote everything they deeply care about: unconventional music, visual art, books devoted to visual art, street fashion and healthy food. Oh, and liquor, but that's secondary to the facility's other facets.
The Crosby concept has germinated for years and gone through several changes (its original emphasis was on films from the owners' personal collections and booze). Nisco and Alfaro had worked together in various musical projects, including Nisco's now-defunct band Vela. Alfaro helped to get Yamaoka—who has known Nisco since grade school—hired at Subject Matter, the Costa Mesa gallery/boutique where he was working until it folded last year. Yamaoka was on the verge of moving to Spain when Nisco and Alfaro made him an offer to be a partner in their budding business. He couldn't refuse. They signed the lease in January and are hoping to open later this month.
"We finally had the chance to do all the concepts we had," Nisco gushes, "all the different collaborations that we wanted to do, whether it be art, music, design, whatever. We can involve all of our friends and make a communal place people can feel comfortable at."
It sounds pretty utopian, with fostering creativity taking priority over monetary gain. "That's the only thing that keeps us going," Nisco says. "There are so many risks; people keep us aware of that every day. [But] we thought about everything. We tell people if we're doing what we love, that's enough reward for us. We want to build a place we enjoy and feel comfortable at, and hopefully that can transcend just us and other people can grasp it."
* * *
Meanwhile, other Artists Village establishments express mixed emotions about their own prospects and city-hall interactions. Bradley admits that Memphis' business has improved after an initial rough patch, noting that there's "much more room for improvement. This will require the continued nurturing of the fine-arts component that the downtown is already known for and which is also the area's biggest draw, [and] also the addition of more complementary attractions such as restaurants/bars in the area, creating a destination with more options, so a thriving after-dinner scene is part of that," he says. Downtown also needs to draw more urban sophisticates, Bradley believes, expressing discouragement over the stalled construction of a three-phase loft project and other shelved concepts.
Proof Bar proprietor Joey Mendes knows from discouraging, too. Proof's liquor license came only after more than two years of struggle. "Our permit includes all sorts of restrictions that we are still in the very long process of trying to amend," Mendes notes. "Sometimes I feel that they were being cooperative just by approving [it] to begin with. Our Type 48 liquor license is a rarity and has not been granted in the city since 1986." This license permits hard liquor to be sold until 2 a.m. in a facility that only admits people 21 years old and over.
Asked if he can explain why the city institutes such a hassle-intensive process, Mendes says, "It seems that [the city] fears a resurgence of the 'problem bars' that were prevalent in Santa Ana during the '80s. This is why they went 'overboard' in listing operational restrictions."
Assistant city manager Cathy Standiford says Santa Ana's regulations are necessary because of the city's past crime problems, when downtown had a high concentration of bars. "[Downtown Santa Ana] was not seen as a desirable place for people to be," she says. "The city's been working hard to try to transform that. What that means is a balance between regulations that allow restaurants and other types of businesses to thrive, but at the same time to protect against harmful effects that can happen there.
"There are other communities in Orange County that don't require a conditional-use permit, don't require certain standards in their downtowns, and what they experience is a huge cost for services for their police department, increased crime, problems with crowd control. All we're trying to do is find a balance that allows business like the Crosby, which we feel will add tremendous value to the Artists Village, to succeed. But at the same time, [we need to] make sure that the downtown is a vibrant, desirable place for people to come."
Overall, Mendes is dissatisfied with the city's "lax and unsupportive" attitude toward downtown bars and restaurants. For example, Proof's use permit calls for a police review after six months of operations. "We are a year and a half in and still waiting on amendments to the many restrictions placed upon our operation," Mendes laments. "I feel like they gave the license and sent us out into the wilderness to fend for ourselves.
"If you look at other 18-hour downtowns like Fullerton, Long Beach and San Diego," he continues, "they have a thriving nightlife scene with restaurants, bars, valet parking, plentiful street transportation, well-lit walkways. It seems that the city is so afraid of regressing toward the Santa Ana of recent history that they are unwilling to grow. It's like they made the one big decision to step forward and then decline on the numerous small decisions that make for real progress."
Speaking of that pre-Artists Village Santa Ana history, Alfaro's memories include "crack[heads], gangs for days, creepsters; stray animals were everywhere. According to my pops, there was a crack house right across the street. Walking around wasn't always fun; [there were] a lot of random unfriendly confrontations."
Despite the institutional hassles, Mendes reports that business at Proof has been good lately, and it's been building a loyal clientele. A recent Friday night there saw a large, hip, ethnically mixed crowd animatedly socializing and dancing to Santa Ana resident Dan Sena's Busywork crew of DJs.
"What is very encouraging is that we are seeing business from all over the county, not just Santa Ana," Mendes says. "Once again, I have mixed feelings about the developing nightlife scene. The thing that gives me hope is the people. I meet so many fun, interesting, creative and enthusiastic people at [Proof]. It gives me hope to see people with such character and unique personalities coming down, especially considering the fact that other parts of the county have a reputation for being a little sterile and lifeless.
"What discourages me is the constant hesitation we see from city hall in making progress down here," Mendes continues. "I am just a businessman who gave up my life and my life's savings to try to run a successful bar in a 'burgeoning' downtown. I knew what I was getting into as far as the 'stigma' attached to the city, but I had no idea that the internal forces would be so resistant to positive growth."
Despite these frustrations, Mendes is a city booster. "I believe that Santa Ana is a hidden gem. With its historic buildings and unique cityscape, it has a feel like no other place in the county. I took a huge risk in coming down here, but I have never regretted it. It has been an uphill battle the entire way, and [it] would be very nice to see some continuing support from the city that gets my tax dollars."
While discussing Santa Ana's attitude toward progressive businesses, Delilah Snell, president of its downtown business council and co-owner of the Road Less Traveled, repeatedly used the word "ridiculous." She can sympathize with the Crosby's situation. [Full disclosure: Snell is dating OC Weekly staff writer Gustavo Arellano.]
"They should've had their business up and running by now," Snell asserts.
It seems as if Santa Ana wants positive developments, but it's still gun-shy from what's happened decades ago. So there's stagnation, trepidation and systemic inertia. Snell agrees: "They need to take a different approach. Instead of working against them and putting all these restrictions and regulations . . . they need to be working with the businesses to make sure that they develop into the kinds of businesses they want to promote."
Even with new businesses that clearly have good intentions, Santa Ana seems to be resistant. Exasperated, Snell says, "I can understand the city's apprehensions about letting a 'bar' come in because they've had a history of having too many bars in the area. They tried to get rid of all of 'em. Their thinking is that if they easily allow for one bar to come in, whether or not it's good for the city, then they're probably going to get some backlash from other people who've been trying to open bars in the city and [weren't allowed] to. Like, why them and not us?
"Also, the city's had a history of being standoffish and not as embracing as other cities have," Snell continues. "But there's a lot of old thinking in the city, as well. Times have changed. If we want to change the image of downtown, if we want to be more progressive and look like what other downtowns are doing, like Old Towne Orange, we're going to have to be more embracing of different businesses and drop the past. That happened 25, 30 years ago. We have new people coming in."
Snell notes that Santa Ana's dynamic is unique, yet she thinks "the city should still be strict when it comes to bars, but with the Crosby, they know it's not just gonna be another late-night place where maybe there's [undesirables] walking around. The city's had some problems with that and litter, windows being graffitied. I don't think it's going to be that kind of crowd.
"What the city needs to realize is that when you put up all of these obstacles for new, independent, image-changing businesses to come into the area, you're never going to change your image."
In Snell's view, Santa Ana has lagged behind other OC cities with regard to development. "Look at the Orange Circle—totally changed in the past 10 years," she observes. "It's great. And they're getting all the traffic that we should be getting. We're a downtown area, and we don't have half of that."
Santa Ana puts prospective proprietors through this arduous process, Snell observes, "to see how badly you want a business there. Which is so not the way to go about it."
Deemed by Snell as "very pro-business," Ward 2 City Councilmember Michele Martinez confesses she was unaware of the Crosby's difficulties with Santa Ana regulations. However, she admits, "we do have policies that are not very business-friendly, and it makes it real difficult for businesses to open in the city. This issue is being addressed with our staff and how we can better work with the business community.
"I am a big believer in restaurants like the Crosby and how they can help revitalize our city," Martinez continues. "I believe we need to change the way we do business in our city. We must progress as a city if we want to be 'Downtown Orange County.' I want to see more nightlife in Santa Ana, so we can market to a large pool of residents who are spending their money in Fullerton, Long Beach and Brea because Santa Ana does not provide [similar] amenities."
Nisco points to a city brochure that highlights improvements from new businesses (decreased crime, livelier streets), yet numerous, onerous restrictions remain in place. He shakes his head and declares, "We're trying to add to the area, clean up the city and build up the culture. It's weird."
On top of the institutional obstacles, bureaucratic incompetence also hinders progress. "There are so many different levels of bureaucracy where you can hit problems," Nisco notes. "There are people up high who might not even know what's going on, and there are people down low who don't care. Sometimes it may not be that department, but rather just one person who has a lot of power and what they can put on you."
"Had it been up to the people actually running it," Alfaro says, "it would save us a lot more time. People on staff sometimes are just sort of there, and it's not that they don't care about the project, but . . . they don't care about the project," he says, laughing ruefully. "It's really frustrating."
The idea for the Crosby partially arose out of the trio being fed up with having to travel to big cities to experience interesting music, art and fashion. "We've lived in Orange County all our lives," Nisco says. "We don't want to have to keep driving 50 miles to find cool places. We want to put it in our back yard. We know there are people here who feel the same way. Hopefully, they'll be into [the Crosby]."
Musically, the Crosby will likely resemble LA's Low End Theory club night, where Alfaro (a skilled DJ who spins under the name Urthworm and creates left-field instrumental hip-hop as Free the Robots) has performed and made connections with many of its regulars. Underground hip-hop and experimental electronic music will figure prominently in the Crosby's mix, but Alfaro insists that all DJs will be given free rein. That's one advantage to having friends who are elite disc jockeys.
"They don't have to keep the crowd dancing," Nisco says, "just play the music they love, what they'd play in their bedrooms, the stuff they show their friends. It's more about the music and less about rocking a party."
"We're gonna keep it open and have different nights," Alfaro says. "We don't want human jukeboxes at the Crosby."
As a member of the six-person From Elsewhere crew, Alfaro will tap some of his cohorts to play his club. Expect to see many of Los Angeles' A-list DJs, too, including Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus and the Beat Junkies. Plans are afoot to work with Santa Ana clothing/design firm Obey Giant; you may even see famed artist/CEO Shepard Fairey DJing at the Crosby.
With capacity tentatively set under 60, the Crosby will be more of a spot for chilling than shaking moneymakers. Its owners envision the space as a cross between a '20s jazz joint and a modern hip-hop head's haunt, with a special fondness for '80s aesthetics. For instance, the Crosby's uniquely jerry-rigged sound system will be wired through 18 massive boomboxes of Reagan-era vintage. And the Yamaoka-designed clothing to be showcased will lean more toward hoodies than zoot suits.
While DJs and bartenders will reign during the night, chef Aron Habiger, a longtime friend of Alfaro's who re-entered his orbit at a serendipitous time, will rule the daylight hours. He'll be preparing food that promises to be as unconventional as the Crosby's sonic menu. Currently the sous chef at San Clemente's Café 207, Habiger could've taken higher-paying posts at other spots (he recently graduated from Cordon Bleu), but he sees the Crosby as a rare opportunity to exert total creative control. Gourmet pizzas will form the core of the Crosby's offerings, with soups, salads and sandwiches also likely to appear. The emphasis will be on uncommon flavors and healthy ingredients.
"I have always wanted to have a place to showcase my food and share with people who are in search of something unique to eat," Habiger says. Philosophically in line with the Crosby's honchos, he reiterates, "It's not about the money for us; it's the chance to have something special for us and the people in the Artists Village. Phil, Chris and Mark are making my dreams come true."
The Crosby bosses' dreams came closer to being realized Aug. 27, when the city granted it a liquor license, minus the absurd conditions of its original offering. It will be allowed to serve alcohol until 2 a.m., and drink orders won't have to be accompanied by food.
Alfaro and Nisco largely credit their fellow Santa Ana business owners for attending the hearing and supporting the Crosby cause. "Thanks to all the people who showed up, we convinced them it was a positive thing," Alfaro says. "Some of the council members, staff and police were way iffy."
Alfaro says Councilmember Sean Mill presented the strongest opposition to the Crosby's permit, while Jim Gartner "took the lead role in getting the other council members interested." Some people on the planning staff, police department and city council angled to have the Crosby comply with conditions on its ABC license (no liquor served after midnight, alcohol must be served with food) for at least a year "to build a solid track record and make sure we weren't bringing a negative vibe to downtown," Alfaro recounts.
"The main issue is that they don't want us to turn into a full-blown nightclub. By giving us the 2 a.m. with live entertainment, DJs and music, some automatically made that assumption, without understanding our genre of restaurant," Alfaro continues. "We were able to appeal these issues with the help of our fellow neighbors in the Artists Village and local community, but it wasn't easy. We also had to pay another fee of $1,780 for the appeal process. Our concept was pretty hard to grasp, and we were compared to El Torito. El Torito was actually used as a catalyst for their argument of consistency in conditions for our business."
"It was so intense," Nisco relates. "Felt like the O.J. trial. But it passed on a 4-2 vote. A good amount of the local business owners came through and spoke on our behalf. We couldn't have done it without them."
Now the onus is on the Crosby boys and their contractors to get the physical space ready for the public. "It's pretty intimidating to think about it all at once," Nisco sighs. "The only things that can really set us back on the city/state side of it all are the final inspections—health being a big one. All we hear from people are horror stories. We'll see."
Perhaps the most heartening aspect to the Crosby's story has been the helpful advice the upstarts received from their ostensible competitors, those unfortunate souls who've been through Santa Ana's rigorous rigmarole. Alfaro and co. laud their landlord, Joe Duffy; the Memphis group; Proof; Pangea; Gypsy Den; the Road Less Traveled; @space; the downtown business council; and two Avalon Bar employees who've loaned their construction skills to the project.
"It seems like everyone's connected," Nisco marvels. "There's some weird synergy here."
For updates on the Crosby's opening, visit www.thisisthecrosby.com or myspace.com/freetherobots.