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Northgate Supermarket to Turn Historic Downtown Santa Ana Location Into ‘High Quality’ Apartments

[dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]hock and anger has spread across Santa Ana as news emerged that Northgate Gonzalez Supermarket — an Anaheim-based chain that essentially created the Latino supermarket business in the United States — wants to transform its downtown location on 409 E. Fourth Street into a mixed-use development.

In a flyer posted online by Northgate and its development partner, Red Oak Investments, the company announced that it would transform its Fourth Street spot into “a new mixed‐use residential development featuring high quality residences and public‐serving commercial areas, including a possible restaurant and fresh, urban market.”

The market would be about 3,000 square feet — a fifth of its current size.

On a Facebook post by the nonprofit Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities yesterday, residents expressed bewilderment that Northgate — which has six locations in Santa Ana alone, out of 40 total — would betray the very working-class community that made them by swapping an essential neighborhood market for two multi-story complexes complete with a pool and courtyards.

But what no one mentioned is that the location slated for destruction is a particularly important one in the Northgate narrative, a legacy they seem willing to toss in the name of development.

#8 in downtown SanTana

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]n 1995, Northgate proposed a $6.5 million project, 36,000-square foot warehouse and mercado on two lots intersected by Mortimer Street that they owned in downtown Santa Ana. The company had sent a team to Guadalajara to plan the proposed design, and wanted to include a sit-down deli.

At the time, downtown Santa Ana did not attract the hipsters it does today, as it was a redoubtably Latino neighborhood and shopping center. But the City Council had plans to turn la Cuatro and its surrounding areas into an artist's village, and rejected Northgate's plans on a 3-3 tie (current Mayor Miguel Pulido was one of the people who voted against it).

The council at the time claimed it was a simple decision: too many breaks toward Northgate, and a Latino market was not “what downtown needs,” according to a August 10, 1995 story in the Orange County Register.

But other residents were far more forthcoming to the press.

“I don't doubt that the [Gonzalez family that runs Northgate] are a wonderful family, but they have no control over the users and abusers of what they have to offer,” one Debbie McEwen told the Register. “It will be a predominantly Hispanic market. I'm not sure that this should be done with Fourth Street.”

“Proposed market opens up racial rift,” read an August 28, 1995 headline in the Register, in a story by Agustín Gurza, who'd go on to be a columnist for the paper and the Los Angeles Times.

RELATED: The Northgate Grocery Chain Loses Its Matriarch ~ Teresa Reynoso de Gonzalez, 90

Plans for Northgate apartments
Plans for Northgate apartments

“The civic schism has been rumbling under the surface of public discourse for years,” Gurza wrote, in passage that remains relevant to the city's downtown gentrification in the present day. “Should Santa Ana remain a primarily Hispanic city that caters to an ethnic market? Or should it encourage culturally neutral development that would lure non-Hispanics to come downtown, as they did decades ago?”

The Northgate Fourth Street project came to another vote in September of that year. On a 4-3 vote, the council rejected it outright, again claiming the company wanted too many favors (Pulido claimed Northgate had “gotten a little bit greedy.”) The move stunned the Gonzalezes, three of whom attended the council meeting.

“Maybe we can go somewhere else where we are welcome,” said CEO Miguel.

“This has nothing to do with development standards,” said Councilman Ted Moreno after the vote. “I can't believe the racism that came out. It's because the wrong people would use the market.”

The wrong people being, of course, Mexicans.

Four months later, though, in January of 1996, the council approved a reduced 15,400-square-foot Northgate in one of the lots by a 4-3 vote. The Gonzalez family ended up contributing almost $3,000 in donations to Moreno's reelection campaign; he'd go on to get convicted on federal charges for money laundering and extortion on a separate issue.

Another view

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he downtown store wouldn't open until May of 1997. It was the first Northgate the company built from the ground up. Number 8 (the in-company nickname for the spot, because it was the eighth-ever Northgate) became a point of pride among the Gonzalez family as they went on to open a total of 42 stores from San Diego to the San Fernando Valley.

It's been slammed since its opening, gracias to its affordable produce and in-store tortilleria. An ecosystem of loncheras have sprung around Number 8 — Chivas Tortas for tortas ahogadas, El Rincón del Sabor for alambres, and the Ruby's Tamales cart right in front for Mexican and Salvadoran delights.

The proposed apartment complex would most likely eradicate all of that.

But Northgate insiders aren't surprised that the company would want to tear down Number 8 and get into the apartment industry. Northgate has slowly pivoted toward a more affluent, bilingual customer base over the past couple of years, as low-cost, well-financed Latino grocers like El Super and Superior Market has stripped away its longtime immigrant base from the privately held Northgate.

It's had to tighten its belt as a result. Northgate closed its original location, off Anaheim Boulevard in downtown Anaheim, in 2017 and sold it to the city for $4.75 million. That year, Northgate also sold off its share in an effort to expand to Arizona to rival Cardenas Markets for an undisclosed amount.

Indeed, the Gonzalez family is so concerned about recent losses that it's running radio and television ads for the first time in recent memory. And they just hired an outside ad agency to develop “integrated and strategic advertising campaigns designed to differentiate Northgate in the competitive Southern California market,“” per a June press release.

At a raucous community meeting held at Latino Health Access yesterday, a Northgate representative said that the company “respects” their Santa Ana consumers, calling them “our #1 city,” and said they would build a bigger store in the neighborhood. But he also admitted that it's “difficult for us to be competitive” there because of nearby grocers—a bizarre statement, considering the nearest big market is at least a mile away.

Residents at the meeting  assailed Northgate for wanting to build apartments with no promise of affordable housing. “No ceviche bar, no market flair is going to” change the fact that many santaneros cannot afford rent, one young woman said.

Customers interviewed at Number 8 couldn't believe that Northgate wanted to build apartments there.

No, pues no es bueno eso,” said Juventud Hernandez, a 42-year-old who had stopped in for some detergent. “No hay ningun otro mercado grande como este cercas de aquí.

“Really, Northgate apartments?” said 23-year-old Yasmin Rios. She was putting groceries into her Honda Civic. “That's just fucking lame.”

ALSO BY THE AUTHOR:

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