Bare, Ruined Choirs
Five feet, nine inches tall, in armpit hair, a Panama-style hat advertising Corona beer, and a vest made to resemble a serape, the often-shirtless Jose Teo Ochoa would not be your first choice for spokesman. But if you stand in the back yard outside 1103 N. Broadway and holler long enough, he's usually the guy who comes downstairs to say a few words on anything from the weather to police brutality.
Ochoa is the de facto public-information officer for the six men and three women—all previously homeless—who spent several months living in Santa Ana's historic Tudor Revival-style 1914 McNeill-Basler house. But you don't have to worry; they're homeless again, rousted by Santa Ana police on March 8. The house and its neighbor, the 1928 Yale Apartments at 1007 N. Broadway, are vacant, boarded up and in limbo. Again.
But that doesn't matter; nor does it matter that both buildings are owned by Orange County real-estate mogul Mike Harrah (also OC Weekly's landlord)—or that they sit directly in the footprint of Harrah's 37-story One Broadway Plaza (OBP) office building. You might have even been among the 17 percent of Santa Ana voters who decided to let Harrah build OBP; the Measure A referendum on the project was just two days ago. Given the county registrar's antipathy toward things like "counting" and "ballots," it's nothing short of miraculous that voting results are trickling in. But the final score doesn't matter anyway: whether or not Harrah builds the new tallest building in Orange County, the McNeill-Basler house and the Yale Apartments have been out of options for some time.
No one knows what to do with them; no one has the vision, the plan or the commitment—i.e., money—to revitalize them or their street, a once-choice residential neighborhood, so that it will do anything but make money: not the city, not Harrah (who owns much of it), not preservationists, not the police, not even the homeless people who lived there. Santa Ana has little of the finesse you see in cities such as Pasadena, where historic residential neighborhoods throughout have been painstakingly preserved whole—and kept apart from retail and commercial districts. Santa Ana has created no such plan for its history, nor has one evolved. Its key historic residential neighborhoods that have been saved—French Park and Floral Park, for example—got lucky. They were separate entities to begin with, and they survived because of the tireless efforts of residents who could afford to buy, say, one house and slowly restore it.
No one can afford to buy a house that belongs to Mike Harrah—one he plans to replace with a 37-story monument to commerce. It's impossible; even more impossible than the recent standoff over the historic Fox Theater in downtown Fullerton. That situation came down to money, too: at the 23rd hour and 59th minute, preservationists got lucky when one anonymous donor wrote a $1 million check. This hasn't happened in Santa Ana, and it won't. The people with the money are Harrah and the city—and they're planning to use that money and their historical buildings to make more money.
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Orange County is like so many other Western municipalities in that it hasn't yet realized its own historical worth. Preservation is piecemeal here, partly because so much of the county was built in the recent past and isn't historic—yet many cities that do have historic areas (Fullerton, Anaheim, Orange and Huntington Beach are classic examples) don't know how to handle them properly and make exceptions for the "right" developers or corporations.
Which brings us back to Santa Ana, where Harrah is the right developer with the right project at the right time—which is to say, it's right for him and it's right for Santa Ana's power brokers. OBP would mint Harrah as a developer; he would no longer be just the guy who won the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Preservation Society's annual preservation award in 2003 (the year before suing it over One Broadway Plaza), the guy who restored Santa Ana's three signature historic buildings: the 1929 Santora Building at 207 N. Broadway; the former Masonic Temple, now Santa Ana Performing Arts & Events Center, at 505 N. Sycamore St.; and the 1919 Cadillac dealership, now Original Mike's restaurant, at 100 N. Main St.
Putting OBP over would move Harrah toward the top echelon of Orange County developers. His name would forever be linked to a massive new development—as opposed to restorations. The project also would distance Harrah from his variegated past as the 50-something dude who holds a Screen Actors Guild card and did helicopter stunts in Austin Powers: Goldmember, who was once seen wearing a $26,000 coyote-fur coat, who somewhat mysteriously weathered a $28.5 million bankruptcy in 1990 not caused by purchasing that same coat, and who rides a Harley and lives in Newport.
Harrah would finally be able to trade history for progress. That sounds odd given his own recent past, but maybe that's what he's really been trying to do this whole time. Progress may not look as good as history, but it pays better—much better than any chain of events that involves saving the McNeill-Basler house and the Yale Apartments.
And this isn't just about Harrah. OBP also would let Santa Ana reassert its supremacy as the county seat, which has been in jeopardy since the day several months ago that UC Irvine first suggested moving the state appellate court building from its teeny, ancient quarters in Santa Ana to new digs on its campus.
"This is about the future of Santa Ana and Orange County," Harrah told the Santa Ana City Council last summer, shortly before midnight, on the night it approved One Broadway Plaza, sparking the signature drive that led to Measure A. OBP, Harrah continued, in a voice that rumbled like his Harley, would make Santa Ana "a place to go, not a place to go through." His words must have spread like a salve over the city's inferiority complex—its worries of losing claim to the title of "county seat," of not having a world-class mall, of being a city of working-class minorities. It seemed clear that, if built, One Broadway Plaza would let Santa Ana keep its lawyers, their money and their prestige. Harrah has said before that he would rent OBP to attorneys. And he would make far more from a new commercial space than he ever would from two residential properties.
This is all about money, and no one with money is interested in saving either structure—so they sit, moldering into disrepair. The seminal Yale Apartments is fenced off and boarded up. Its rear staircase is even roofed over so homeless can't sleep on the landing, which hasn't worked. Ironically, when Harrah bought it, the Yale Apartments was a functioning historic apartment building—not a washed-up has-been. Then-renters lived in a modernist stucco cube that recalled the architect Irving Gill's better efforts. Gill, who tried to link his buildings to the outdoors by painting them white tinged with just a hint of green, might not have liked the Yale's current slate blue, but he surely would have approved of its interior, which is perhaps its best-known feature.
Much of the Yale's insides are sheathed in rare gumwood, an exotic that is threatened because builders long ago used up most of it—and hearing that, you probably want to tear down the Yale yourself. Bastards,howdaretheyuseupallthegumwoodtrees?
But the only way to save the gumwood—aside from not using any more of it—is to save buildings that are repositories of it, like the Yale, which looks as if it's clad in "plastic liquid amber," according to those who have seen inside. Harrah, who wants the land for OBP, doesn't care if the Yale has gumwood interior accents or original skylights—which it does. According to the city, he had an inspector declare it seismically unsound, which gave him pretext to evict its tenants and board the place up. Santa Ana, which supports OBP, stepped in at the last minute to save it from immediate demolition (the city is fine with demolition done through the proper channels) and to broker a deal that would satisfy preservationists.
"He has a standing offer to anybody who wants any of those buildings that are in the [way]," says Kenneth Adams, Santa Ana's assistant director of planning and building. The offer, Adams says, is to sell it for $1, making it sound as if anyone in the world could buy the Yale Apartments—but then they'd have to pay to move them. According to a feasibility report done several years ago by San Francisco's Garavaglia Architecture, moving the Yale Apartments would cost anywhere from $200,000 to half a million dollars.
"It would probably have cost more per square foot to move [it] than to build" a new one, Adams says, adding, "We haven't had a move, we haven't processed one in about 10 years." Harrah wouldn't talk to us for this article, but Adams says his $1 offer also applies to the McNeill-Basler house two doors north, where its success would be equally doubtful. Moving unreinforced brick buildings is always tricky—though it goes without saying that moving the McNeill-Basler house has never come up before. Built by famed Orange County contractor Christopher McNeill, who also built the original Orange County courthouse, the house passed down in 1948 to Dr. Herman Basler, its third owner. Basler bought it from a real-estate financier and ran a convalescent hospital one door south of his stately three-story home, with its pointed, Gothic window frames; ornately cut eaves; huge master bath with two sinks; and downstairs fireplace big enough to roast a suckling pig. All this would have to be relocated.
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The McNeill-Basler was unofficially renamed the "Big Brother house" last year by Ochoa and his housemates. The obvious reason, he said, was because 1103 N. Broadway had become a popular stop for Santa Ana police, responding to reports of trespassing, drinking, drugging and gay sex; the other was that the homeless living together saw themselves as a band of brothers—us against the world.
Police have visited the house 53 times since January 1999, according to Santa Ana police Lieutenant Carlos Rojas. The vast majority of police visits were in response to trespassing complaints phoned in against people probably much like Ochoa. The Michoacan native told me in early March that they found the McNeill-Basler by word of mouth late last year. He recalled in vivid broken English nights spent cowering upstairs from the drunks, thieves, junkies and maricones—the Spanish word meaning "faggots"—whom Ochoa said once caroused below.
"One night, we were here," Ochoa said, "and the police came in downstairs, and they were . . . arresting people. And we hide"—and he covered the back of his head with crossed hands. And it worked, for a while.
Their eviction was really just a warm-up; with the election over, there's no longer any doubt that another Orange County area of choice homes will make way for the marketplace, much in the way historic Anaheim did in the 1970s and 1980s. The only unanswered question now seems to be how long these two pieces of history will have wait for the guys with neon vests, hardhats, donuts and heavy equipment to show up and take them apart.
Like the homeless, all we can do is wait and see.
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