On a busy afternoon, a man loads boxes of strawberries and other produce into his truck after wheeling a shopping cart from Northgate Market in downtown Santa Ana. The small parking lot is mostly full and daytime shoppers roam the aisles inside. But that daily bustle may become a thing of the past. Within a few years, the longtime grocery store on the corner of Fourth and Mortimer Street is set to shutter. The Gonzalez family behind the Anaheim-based Mexican market chain wants to replace it with a residential mixed-use project with rental rates potentially too high for most of its own workers to be able to afford.
With Santa Ana’s “sunshine law,” Latino Health Access hosted community meeting about the project last night, one wrought with tension at times. The Gonzalez family already filed an application with the city to redevelop the site on property it owns and is teaming with Red Oak Investments on the 133-unit project that would include a restaurant, an urban fresh market, and other retail leasing space. Andrew Nelson, a principal with Red Oak, opened the conversation by introducing Carl Middleton, a senior vice president with Northgate Gonzalez Markets, who had assurances for his audience.
“The first thing that I would like to share with you is that the Gonzalez’s respect and really appreciate business support from citizens and neighbors in Santa Ana,” he said. “I want you to know that we don’t plan to close the store, we plan to relocate the store.” Middleton declared Santa Ana to be the company’s No. 1 city where they have six locations that employ 1,200 people. But he claimed the 20-year fixture on Calle Cuatro faced stiff competition from big grocery stores (What Food 4 Less? Can’t beat a union store?) and that consumer habits have changed.
Newer Northgate Markets in Orange County have a bigger produce section, more organic offerings and food courts. Proponents of the project pointed to a year-old location in La Habra where the grocery giant acquired a shopping plaza that allowed them to expand their services. “This part of Santa Ana needs a big store,” Middleton said. “That’s what we want to do is build a bigger store.”
The Senior VP claimed that expanding the current store site had been considered in the past, but plans proved to be unworkable. Instead, the Gonzalez Real Estate Company wants a mixed use development to rise in its place. “We’re not planning to build luxury apartments,” Middleton promised. “We anticipate that the primary people who will rent in the project will be younger workers and professionals who have grown up in Santa Ana and want to stay close to their families.”
Changing consumer habits? Housing for professionals? Northgate’s plan to close their grocery location on Calle Cuatro catering to mostly Mexican patrons echoed all the familiar tropes of downtown gentrification throughout the past decade. “The development proposal is not sponsored by some out of town developer trying to buy the land but by the Northgate Gonzalez family,” Nelson tried to assure. He promised the plan wouldn’t include any subsidies or rezoning. “We want the project to stand on its own.”
After listening to Northgate’s plans for fancy apartments and a relocated store, residents still had hard questions–a lot of them. Albert Castillo, a longtime activist with Chicanos Unidos, asked what the expected rental rates would be. “We do not know today what the rents will be in four years when this is done,” said Nelson. But when pressed further, he stated that if opened today, the mostly 1-2 bedroom units would go between $1,500 and $3,500 but wouldn’t commit to those numbers in writing. “That’s bullshit!” someone yelled from the crowd.
Latino Health Access is a longtime partner with Northgate Market, a fact acknowledged by Nancy Mejia, the nonprofit’s Director of Community Engagement and Advocacy. “Most of the community that we serve has a household income of $30,000 or less,” she said. “We are here to support the recommendations of the community.” Mejia asked the project’s representatives if, under Santa Ana’s Housing Opportunity Ordinance, they planned to dedicate 10-15 percent of the 133 units to affordable housing or would pay in-lieu fees instead, one of the many questions left unanswered.
A local property owner angrily spoke out against a July 30 letter he received from Florence Homes about plans to build new homes and affordable housing across the street from Northgate Market. “I anticipate you will be kind enough to provide an answer in a timely manner,” wrote Kristopher Garroutte, an acquisitions associate inquiring about buying property on 501 E. Fourth Street for the plan. “If I don’t receive a response I will have to assume you are either incapable or reluctant to support our project. I will then discover other means of retrieving and obtaining the land for the desired resolution.”
When the letter came up again later in the meeting, Nelson disavowed it. “That did not come from us,” he said. “That’s an offensive letter.” The Weekly called Garroutte who confirmed the inquiry had nothing to do with the Northgate Market plan and Florence Homes is only in conceptual stages of the housing development referenced in the letter. That issue aside, residents also wanted to know where the new Northgate Market would be built. Representatives couldn’t answer the question definitively, only that they were looking at possibly relocating to the intersection of First Street and Grand Avenue.
Displeased by much of what they had heard, residents in opposition to the plan vowed a boycott against Northgate Market by the end of the meeting. (SanTaneros: Over here in Anacrime, we’ve long known Northgate Market to donate to political campaigns the likes of council candidate Steve Chavez Lodge, a dirty ex-SAPD cop who lost a six-figure police brutality lawsuit, and to have been clients of the Dark Lord/ex-Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle’s lobbying firm).
Afterward, Isuri Ramos, a volunteer with Tenants United Santa Ana and chair of the Community Redevelopment and Housing Commission, expressed her frustration. “Northgate’s proposed development will not benefit the community that lives in the Lacy neighborhood,” she says. “These people choose to give Northgate their business every single day by buying groceries and cashing their checks at this store.”
A recent grassroots effort to put the issue of rent control on the November ballot in Santa Ana recently missed its deadline. But volunteers like Ramos continue their signature gathering efforts with the 2020 elections in sight. “Current rents are already unaffordable and projects like these do nothing to address the affordable housing crisis we’re in,” she says. “It’s why we need rent control in Santa Ana.”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.