Lofty Ambition

Photo by Jack GouldSanta Ana will unveil next month the latest phase in an ongoing effort to bolster the city's arts scene: 30 brand-new "live-work" artist lofts on Main Street in the heart of the Artists Village.

Originally conceived as affordable space for local artists to sell their works from their own homes, the city-subsidized lots are turning out to be so expensive that few local artists will actually live there.

"We all know these lofts aren't for artists," said Skeith De Wine, an artist who lives and works downtown. "They will just bring in people who have money: music-industry people, graphic designers and architectural firms."

When the city approved what amounted to a $1.2 million subsidy to the Seal Beach-based Olson Co., which is developing the lofts, each unit was supposed to sell for $200,000. But with only one-third of them built, each loft is already priced between $350,000 and $400,000. And by the time the project's remaining 56 lofts are built and sold in the next year, the price tag could rise to $500,000 apiece.

In fact, only a handful of the 86 total lofts will be even remotely affordable. According to John Reekstin, executive director of Santa Ana's Community Development Agency, the Olson Co. has agreed to the city's request that they sell six lofts at below-market prices in order to attract local artists.

"We wanted to be sure that some of the units would be available to the emerging artists community," Reekstin said. "That's why we included the six affordable units."

Reekstin added that the city is also renovating other buildings downtown that will provide affordable live-work studio-rental spaces for artists. "There are many more buildings in downtown Santa Ana where the city is working to provide space that is affordable to them," he said. "We are planning with that in mind."

"I wouldn't be involved in this project if I didn't believe that," says Santa Ana artist and planning commissioner Don Cribbs, who the city credits with proposing the construction of affordable lofts in the first place. "There needs to be a place for emerging artists in this city. And if we can just keep the bureaucrats from making too many bad decisions, it can happen."

Cribbs said he first proposed building artists lofts in 1990, when the fair-market value for each unit was less than $100,000. But back then, Cribbs says, the city wasn't interested in cultivating Santa Ana's arts scene. Cribbs quotes one high-ranking city official he refused to name as telling him such an effort would turn downtown Santa Ana "into nothing but homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts."

"We had artists waiting and waiting for the lofts, but the city wouldn't follow through," Cribbs said. "The city was behaving like it didn't really want an arts movement."

While Cribbs believes Santa Ana city officials are now doing everything they can to promote Santa Ana's arts scene, he is still troubled that only 30 percent of the people who have already purchased lofts are actually creative artists. "That's horrible," he said. "The average income of the people moving in there is higher than Irvine [residents']."

Calls to the Olson Co. for this story were directed to marketing director Lenette Hewitt, who did not return our messages at press time. But downtown Santa Ana real-estate broker Gil Marerro said, "We're strongly targeting the artistic community.

"There are a lot of midcareer artists moving in," Marerro said, "not a lot of new or beginning artists, but artists who are more established: graphic artists, advertising-agency types who work out of their homes—just a real good cross-section of creative-type people."

"Everyone wants to have that artistic, bohemian living environment, but this has nothing to do with real artists," said De Wine, the downtown artist. He says the city has an obligation to help foster young artists and that the lofts are accomplishing the opposite goal.

Chris Remer, an artist who works out of a studio in the Artists Village's Spurgeon Building when he's not waiting tables at the nearby Gypsy Den Grand Central Caf, worries that the nearby high-priced lofts actually threaten Santa Ana's visual-arts scene.

"Everyone I've talked to thinks $350,000 is an unreasonable price," he said. "What those prices will do is slowly push the true artists out of this area and give it a more corporate feel. As far as I know, the people moving into the lofts are all from outside this area."

"No artist that I know of can afford one of these lofts," said Ricki Vincent, who builds and designs puppets in his free time but has to work 10-hour days five days a week to afford rent for a studio and an apartment in downtown Santa Ana. "We all live from check to check. I'd have to sell lots and lots of puppets to be able to afford one."


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