Downtown Santa Ana Mixed-Use Project Meets a Historical Hitch

Whatcha got underneath that cladding? Photo by Gabriel San Roman

The First American Title Co. building in downtown Santa Ana isn’t much to look at these days. Abandoned for several years, its broad white walls are a bore. Aside from towering columns facing Main Street, its an eyesore of an edifice. That could soon change with the site slated to be redeveloped into a pricey mixed-use apartment complex. But as the project makes its way through the planning commission before reaching city council, it’s facing an unexpected challenge.

Historical preservation groups suspect that there’s a historical building hidden within the building and have called on Toll Brothers Apartment Living to confirm as much in an effort to integrate the past into the future of downtown Santa Ana. First American Title Co. expanded and renovated its headquarters in the 60’s and 70’s, cladding the original 1931 Orange County Title Co. Art Deco building that stood for decades, an architectural history that’s provoking current curiosities.

“If they sandblast or chiseled it all off and there’s no facade left that’s worth saving, we’ll go away,” says Alison Young, a former longtime president of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society who’s now the group’s associate director. “They won’t take that step because they’re afraid that they’ll find something.”

All sides aired their concerns during a Sept. 23 planning commission meeting. Case planner Vince Ferguson boosted the current design of the 220-unit complex before addressing the historical controversy. “What you want to do is have a project that doesn’t try to mimic or try to [have] a fake facade to match downtown buildings,” he said. “You want something that’s a little bit different so you know that it wasn’t part of the original fabric of the downtown.”

Orange County Title Co. in 1953. Public domain

Aside from aesthetic differences, a dispute over history also drove a wedge between the developer and preservationists. The staff report noted that the First American Title Co. building wasn’t included in the 1984 Downtown National Historic Districts nor did a recent cultural resources study find it to be eligible for any listings on a local or national register.

“Back in ’75, we issued permits to wrap the building,” Ferguson added. “By doing that, we essentially removed the building as an eligible historic resource and now it’s just another building downtown.”

In other words: since the Art Deco building may be hidden from view, it isn’t historic.

That didn’t stop the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society and Preserve Orange County from launching a letter writing campaign ahead of the planning commission meeting. Michael McCann, Toll Brothers’ regional director of acquisition and development, told commissioners that the developers have held meetings with community stake holders, including preservation groups.

“We did offer to create a condition that mandates that during our demolition process we have a historical architect out there watching what we do,” said McCann. “We’ve also offered to pull our demo permit at least 90 days prior to when we actually intend to start construction to allow for the time required that if we do find something of historical significance, there’s time for the advocates to see to it that it’s salvaged in some way and taken off-site.”

Preservation groups disputed the claim that developers met with them and don’t want whatever remains of the facade to be carted away.

Toll Brothers artistic rendering. Courtesy city of Santa Ana

The planning commission decided to continue a vote on the project for 30 days while encouraging both sides to keep talking. An Oct. 1 meeting didn’t bring the controversy any closer to being resolved. According to Young, Toll Brothers didn’t seem interested in meeting preservation groups halfway nor willing to spend the money to take the cladding off the building to solve the historical mystery.

“We didn’t come away with a good feeling,” she says. “The one thing that what we really wanted to save is the facade from the northwest corner of the building and to somehow incorporate that into the project. We weren’t asking for them to save the entire building. We didn’t want to ruin their project or have major delays, which we know costs money.”

The Weekly contacted Toll Brothers for comment and will update the story once a statement is received. The project is slated to return before the planning commission on Oct. 28. If approved over the historical concerns of preservation groups, they’re going to continue fighting.

“The preservation community is not going to go away,” says Young. “Just that first step of exposing the exterior of that building is key to this whole issue. If we can’t get the developer and First American to agree to that, we’ll have to come up with some other plans.”

Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!

10 Replies to “Downtown Santa Ana Mixed-Use Project Meets a Historical Hitch”

  1. So the historical preservationists want to save fucked-up buildings, but aren’t opposed to the project itself, which will bring more gentrification to DTSA–got it.

    1. Let me break it down for you:
      Project gets built: DTSA gentrifies
      Project DOES NOT get built: DTSA gentrifies

      doesn’t matter either way. but if you like… as you say “fucked-up buildings,” sure keep ’em so that block continues to look like it does today.

  2. There is a pretty good chance that much of the original facade is salvageable underneath the ugly 1970s re-skin. Toll Brothers has the wrong attitude, and they should see this as an opportunity to make their project more interesting–and Downtown Santa Ana more beautiful and authentic. Most people crave authenticity. There are countless examples of historic gems being preserved or restored in American city downtowns that have left the downtowns a vastly richer experience for residents and visitors. Art Deco is a beloved architectural style, and if the historic facade is salvageable, it is imperative that it be preserved in situ. The right architect could turn this corner Art Deco gem into a signature feature of the project with amenity spaces inside. If Toll does not want to do the right thing, then perhaps the firm should joint venture with LA’s Ratkovich Company on this project.

    1. Do you want to pay for it? If so, pony up the money if you want the job done a certain way. Otherwise, in the words of one D. Johnson, “Know your role, and shut your mouth”

  3. Please fight the Developers that are working with the support of City staffers to destroy our neighborhoods with these enormous high density apartment buildings being proposed and approved all over the City – there are examples all over the City where once beautiful streets in Santa Ana have been ruined with multistory apartment buildings adjacent to single family home – it looks awful – overcrowding, no parking and no space for children to play.

    The City has been mismanaged for decades and it seems city leaders are committed to repeating the same mistakes of the past – there are only a few remaining beautiful things in our City – its buildings, parks and its neighborhoods. Fight to save what’s left.

  4. The attutude of the aging conservative Hispanic (DTSA) community towards gentrification is friendly. I urge you folks to step away from your echo-chambers of groups and do some verbal polling of community members not affiliated with your organization. In this case, you may find that your group of 20 people are the only ones that hold this opinion of this building.

  5. Considering that First American has a vast library of photographic images of the city of Santa Ana properties, it is unthinkable that they did not document the “facade” cover-up project in 1975. It also seems that the OC Register would have had photos or articles of the remodel. The point being: perhaps both First American and Toll already know what is under the facade and are unwilling to have it removed BEFORE their entitlements are in place. If so, their intention might be to simply bulldoze the entire site, fast, easy, and cheaply.

    At the planning commission meeting, the applicant and developer do seem willing to explore modifying their plan to incorporate a limited portion of the facade on 5th street. Unfortunately, the modern facade of their project would not have any aesthetic relevance to the preserved Art Deco facade. It would be great if simple modifications (e.g. spandrel designs) could at least be reminiscent of Art Deco design.

    Either way, if the facade was destroyed–it is a great loss for the downtown to restore an Art Deco jewel. If it IS there relatively intact, yes, there would be an additional cost to the development, but what an amazing lobby entry/amenity and presence it would make for the Main Steetscape, the new structure AND be met with postive PR and an appreciative community for the preservation/adaptive reuse of a piece of architectural history.

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