Small business owners from Latino neighborhoods in downtown Santa Ana occupied a restricted construction zone on Wednesday to protest the ongoing OC Streetcar construction, which they claim is killing their sales.
An elderly juice and bagel business owner climbed a dirt mound in a ditch on Wednesday morning, shouting against the wind, that used to be a paved road along Santa Ana’s Fourth Street but is planned to become a 4-mile streetcar track by 2024.
A group of Fourth Street shop owners stood behind bagelry owner Maria Perez inside the construction trench, doing business in a culturally significant area known as La Cuatro:
Bridal gowns, basic stores, Latino travel agency, and tax services are among the companies that, according to their owners, don’t quite suit the image of bars and restaurants that some in town want this neighborhood to be renowned for.
“Come on, don’t be scared, come on up here,” Perez yelled to the others, who rushed up the dirt mound surrounding her.
At the same moment, a tractor approached the group from Broadway and Fourth, indicating that work in the area had resumed. When the motorist noticed the crowd in the off-limits construction zone, he came to a halt and exited.
That was the goal for the shop owners.
After failing to reach their representatives, Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, as well as those from the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), who are overseeing the project, shop owners who arrived as early as 6 a.m. told Voice of OC they had no other options.
Takeout orders are frequently not picked up, according to Martin Ocampo, a restaurant bar owner, due to parking issues or unclear street closures.
“We used to make $450,000 a year, or around $3,000 a day,” Ocampo said, adding that he’s been in business in downtown for ten years.
The demonstration forced an unplanned town hall meeting between downtown merchants, who were once again protesting in the construction zone, and three local political officials on Wednesday afternoon:
Sarmiento and Hernandez arrived on Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, whose newly redrawn county district now encompasses the neighborhood, to speak with small business owners who had so far refused to move.
“Yesterday we received calls from your offices asking what we needed so that we don’t protest,” one person in the throng addressed council members in Spanish. We just requested that we communicate with you. That was the only request we made. That is why we had to take strong measures in order to see change.”
Merchants were told by Sarmiento and Hernandez that their issues will be sent to OCTA in meetings by Friday, and that demonstrators should remain out of the dirt construction pits in the interim.
Merchants appeared to accept the schedule given to them in response, but stated that if things were not settled by Friday, they would be back in the dirt.
The issue also brought attention to places of the city where streetcar construction has caused comparable disruptions, such as the Artesia Pilar neighborhood, but where there has been no outrage from commercial interests – a fact that generated debate on social media the night before Wednesday’s protest.
Earlier on Wednesday morning, a city employee wearing a hard hat warned demonstrators that accessing the work zone could result in disciplinary action.
Those who have done business on Fourth Street for decades, on the other hand, did not back down.
Rather, they inquired about the employee’s name.
Shopkeepers claim that their livelihoods are at jeopardy.
They’re also demanding that city and county transit authorities, as well as the downtown business liaisons who are supposed to represent their interests, begin making restitution.
Specifically, during a group discussion with Foley, the county supervisor, who had also visited with shops earlier in the day on the street, some asked for direct small business grants.
“These are valid issues.” “Your desires are not unrealistic,” Foley told the audience.
The retailers also want more large-scale signage that instructs guests on where to park and how to get to shops.
“We want to make a bigger message,” Ana Laura Padilla, a protest organizer, said as she stood in front of her professional tax services business, pointing to the signs and chairs she and others had placed up in the construction zone while the sun was still rising.
She and others claim they’ve attempted, but failed, to schedule meetings with municipal and OCTA officials to express their concerns.
Their objections about the effects of streetcar construction aren’t new.
They’ve been accumulating for years.
“People believe we’re closed because we close our doors because of the construction, but it’s due of the dirt,” said Ocampo, the restaurant and bar owner, as dirt kicked up in the wind behind him.
“We understand that dust is a worry,” OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. “Especially with the start of work this week that includes tree removal and the high wind conditions,” he added.
Carpenter advised anyone with complaints about the construction to phone 844-746-6272.
These sirens were sounded in 2017 by Madeleine Spencer of the Santa Ana Business Council, which is funded by taxes collected from downtown companies and is entrusted with promoting them and drawing visitors to the area.
She openly called on Santa Ana and OCTA officials to “guarantee mitigation techniques ensuring small businesses that they will minimize the consequences of construction on their companies during the construction of the Street Car” in a Voice of OC op-ed that year.
Hundreds of merchants had pushed for such action as early as the project’s environmental studies, according to Spencer.
The project’s construction began in 2019.
“The present construction on Fourth Street started the first week of February, and we’ve been particularly advising businesses and people of the timeframe for the past month, after months and months of letting businesses and residents know it was coming,” Carpenter said.
“In early January, OCTA went throughout town handing out fliers to businesses to let people know about the project. “We also walked the community the last week of January to inform them that work will begin the following week,” Carpenter wrote in an email on Wednesday.
“This is reaching a stage where people are at their wit’s end in downtown,” Spencer said in a Wednesday phone interview, five years after her 2017 op-ed.
Protesters who talked with Voice of OC on Wednesday also targeted the Santa Ana Business Council, which Spencer is a member of.
Caroline Romero, who spoke up on behalf of Shelsye’s Bridal and Banquet on Wednesday, expressed her dissatisfaction with the Santa Ana Business Council as well as another promotion group, Downtown, Inc., which is supposed to watch out for downtown companies.
The Business Improvement District is governed by the two organisations working together.
Merchants contribute money to the district, which is then supposed to reinvest it on security and promotional services.
The Santa Ana City Council disburses the district’s funds, which are received from businesses through license taxes.
Yet, according to Romero, there is a mismatch between these organizations and the area’s Spanish-speaking Latino business owners.
“These organizations have been around for a while. As protesters began a morning march around Fourth Street, Romero stated, “There are companies here who have been here for 30-plus years and have never heard of them.”
Downtown, Inc. and the Santa Ana Business Council have long been connected with one of the area’s largest property owners, the Chase Family, as well as the area’s dwindling Latino cultural presence.
In response to the criticism, Spencer stated that the organization is doing its best with the resources it has and that it represents approximately 800 firms.
“What they pay for is that when they wake up in the morning, it’s clean, it’s safe in terms of security, and it also offers them with the service of having a general marketing budget,” Spencer explained, adding that the organization’s reach is constrained by its budget and design.
The organization primarily promotes the area by hosting huge events.
“Bringing people down to see multiple parts of the district like Dancing in the Streets, Artwalk, Loteria Sunday, all these festivals – they actually help us to market the district more widely,” Spencer said of the strategy.
Padilla, who also owns Perla Mexican Cuisine, said she and other retailers only recently learned about an agreement between the downtown organizations and OCTA to contribute $400,000 to the two downtown groups over two years during the impromptu afternoon town hall.
“And we asked, ‘What do you do with that (money)?'” says the narrator. ‘We did Salsa Nights,’ was the response. What good will a Salsa Night do for any of us? … “The only person who knows what a business requires is the owner,” Padilla explained.
Spencer said the money from OCTA was restricted for marketing purposes during a phone conversation on Wednesday. She also stated that her organization intends to make its expenditure disclosures available on the business council’s website.
Padilla also mentioned during the town hall that she’s seen “the two faces” of downtown groups in terms of how much they support and promote one sort of business vs the other, based on her experience owning both a restaurant and a tax services firm on the same block.
“I’m caught between two worlds. I have a food business where I receive a lot of publicity and people help me, and then I have another business…” Padilla explained.
When pressed about this, Spencer explained that her group is better at assisting certain types of businesses than others, using restaurants as an example: “We know how to advertise restaurants because we developed that (business) sector.”
According to Spencer, the group is working on a new approach for serving more types of businesses that are traditionally underserved.
“Downtown has 133 different business sectors. We’ve only been able to completely arrange approximately four of them in the last seven years,” Spencer added.
The retailers’ concerns are similar to those expressed by Sarah Rafael Garcia, the founder of Libromobile, Santa Ana’s only bookshop and arts cooperative, at a public meeting last year.
At the Santa Ana City Council meeting on Dec. 7, Garcia stated, “As a business owner, I am demanding more equal methods for the community, rather than paying the same folks year after year to do the same type of labor” for only a few “downtown enterprises.”
Former Santa Ana mayor Miguel Pulido’s passion project, the Streetcar, has been in the works for years.
“We understand,” Romero said early Wednesday. “They closed the streets totally a week before — a couple of days before – we were warned.” That’s one aspect. However, they earlier stated that they will close the roadways in parts.”
“They stated that they would work quickly. “We only see them working for one or two hours a day,” Romero explained.
“Several variables, including contaminated soil, unlabeled utilities in the street, unexpected rail ties, and the finding of cultural relics that needed to be properly transferred,” stated Carpenter of the OCTA.