SANTA ANA – Santa Ana artists are launching a campaign to ensure that the historic Santora Arts Building remains, as its slogan says, “A place for art.”
They question whether a potential buyer of the building, Newsong church in Irvine, would fit into the eclectic Artists Village of studios, restaurants and a growing night life.
At a meeting Thursday evening at the Santora, about two dozen artists came together for a meeting of the newly formed United Artists of Santa Ana to develop a plan to inform the community and City Hall of their concerns.
“It’s not a war on religion,” said Alicia Rojas, the group’s president, at one point during the meeting. “It’s keeping the building focused on the arts.”
They plan to call city officials, distribute fliers at an upcoming Artwalk and appear as a group before the next City Council meeting to voice their concerns.
Among their concerns was the possibility that Newsong Community Church of Orange County, now in escrow, would develop a 300-seat facility in the Santora, the potential for censorship of artists and whether working artists could share a space with a congregation.
Members of the downtown business community, meanwhile, offered a variety of opinions on the church developing a presence downtown.
According to an online message from Lead Pastor Dave Gibbons, the congregation is seeking to buy the building for $6.2 million.
Developer Michael Harrah, who owns the Santora, plans to build a 37-story office tower in Santa Ana called One Broadway Plaza and wants to sell the Santora, a key portion of the Artists Village area. The 1928 structure at 207 N. Broadway is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The United Artists meeting, in addition to artists, drew several key players in the development of the Artists Village, including Don Cribb, who spearheaded its creation, former council member Lisa Bist and Tim Rush, a member of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society.
Cribb noted the importance of the arts community to the economic development of downtown.
“Art is the goose that laid the golden egg for the city of Santa Ana,” he said.
In a press release, a representative of Newsong said the church saw the purchase as an opportunity to ensure that it serve “as a regional and even an international hub for the creative community.”
Gibbons said in an online posting that it will become a new ministry hub focusing on training and urban ministry, as well as provide office space.
Gibbons also wrote that as space becomes available in the Santora through normal changes in tenancy, the church would consider development of a meeting facility with at least 300 seats that could accommodate weekend services as well as training during the week. The church, headquartered on Teller Avenue in Irvine, is seeking a new permanent site there for worship services.
Bist told the group that she learned from city officials that zoning would allow a church facility, but only on the second floor. The first floor has a number of commercial tenants, including the Memphis at the Santora restaurant and Proof Bar.
She and other speakers said that concerns about zoning, parking and the historical nature of the building could be used to prevent development of a meeting or worship center.
Rojas emphasized the importance of developing a strategy that would ensure the Santora remains focused on the arts, in case the escrow fails and another buyer emerges.
She called the meeting “a great start, and almost historic” with its blend of emerging artists and longtime community leaders.
As conversations throughout the downtown continued, the question remained whether art, prayer and nightlife can co-exist in the 48,000-square-foot-square-foot building.
Newsong contends that they can.
“We have no intentions to replace any of the tenants,” said Tom Greer, Newsong director of innovation. “When Newsong started a church in London it met in a pub. We like to go where the community gathers.”
Vicky Baxter, executive director of Downtown Inc., which promotes the downtown, said the organization is interested in learning Newsong’s intentions.
“Artists and businesses are scared of censorship, and we want to talk to the church about that,” she said. “It looks like church has done many acquisitions similar to this, and we don’t think this is new for them. It could be the best thing for the building, but we don’t know.”
Alison Young, president of the historical society, said she was concerned about creation of a 300-seat meeting space.
“It is such an iconic building, we’d hate to see the interior gutted and replaced,” she said. “We understand it would fall under private ownership, and we’d like the opportunity to work with whoever buys it, if they remodel, on ways to preserve the building.”
Diego Velasco, a co-founder of the Memphis Group and executive chef, said he and other business operators are seeking information. The Memphis will celebrate its 10-year anniversary later this year, and the restaurant, along with other cafes and bars, have created a resurgence in the downtown’s nightlife. A new owner could bring about needed repair work, he said.
“There’s a lot of chatter going on in the Village,” he said. “The artists are a little concerned, and I don’t know if religion fits in with art – they’re not exactly like peas in a pod. But as far as the Memphis is concerned, we simply don’t have enough information. We kind of have to take comfort in the fact that the building is zoned for specific uses, and that the city worked long and hard to build the Artists Village.”
George Mendoza, owner of American Barber Shop at Fourth and French streets, moved into downtown from Corona more than a year ago because of the improving night life.
“All the new night life has made downtown a safer place, because it’s chased away the bad stuff that happened after hours,” he said. “I just don’t want to see another beautiful historical building converted into a church.”