Country Roads, an antique mall off the Orange circle, might be the next old-timey store to fall in favor of a restaurant or bar, further diminishing the identity of the nostalgia-rich Old Towne Orange walking district.
Al Ricci, the owner of the building and local real estate scion, has filed an application for a liquor license for the location and plans to evict half of the antique agora, replacing it with a restaurant or bar when the lease is up.
“I think that the restaurants that come in to old town have done well, and I think it’s good for the city,” Ricci said.
Resident outrage over the loss of the 26-year-old store has highlighted long-standing tensions between locals who treasure mom and pop stores, and students, whose spending power has enticed commercial property owners to open up restaurants and bars, which can pay higher rents.
Old Towne Orange is listed as the largest National Register Historic District in California, so plans to replace antique stores with new businesses have been sparking outrage among residents.
“The Orange Plaza commercial area and surrounding residents is the largest National Register Historic District in California. It is not the booze capital in the OC!” said Patti Ricci, a long term resident of Orange. Patti Ricci said she is unrelated to Al Ricci.
Distressed residents have started collecting signatures for a petition protesting the license, though no formal complaints had been filed with the state liquor board as of March 13, according to John Carr, Public Information Officer for the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. Residents attached to familiar storefronts find themselves fighting two major players in the gentrifying area: Ricci, owner of Ricci Realty, and Chapman University, which draws thousands of students into the area, most of whom are more likely to patronize establishments selling beer, pizza and $20 salads than antique malls offering WWI gas masks, a montage of camera parts and Victorian linens.
Community members had until March 17 to submit written objections to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Santa Ana District in writing “and persons living within 500 feet of the premises have until March 27,” to do so, Carr said.
If a formal protest is filed, that would trigger a scheduling of an administrative hearing, which could go as far as a California Supreme Court Decision before the issuance of license is determined.
Orange residents were collecting signatures for a formal protest for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. An individual helping promote the petition outside the Country Roads store refused to comment and could not confirm when and to whom the petition will be given.
“Within the Old Towne Orange area there is an excessive amount of business that sell alcoholic beverages. Within a walking distance of the Plaza Square Park there is over 20 businesses that sell alcoholic beverages,” the petition reads.
Ricci said he would move forward to put a food court on his property whether he receives a liquor license or not.
Residents said they would fight the elimination of yet another classic establishment.
“The simple fact is that we love the Country Roads antique store and we don’t want it to go away,” said Lawrence Butler, whose family has lived in the same house in Old Towne Orange for over a hundred years.
There are already enough bars and restaurants in Old Town, said Butler, who signed the petition.
“How can Orange be a historic district while wanting to become the restaurant capital of the world? You can’t be the best at everything,” Chambers said.
But area restaurants are thriving and the Circle benefits from variety, Ricci said.
Ricci filed for a “type 47” alcohol license on Sep. 21, 2018. A type 47 license is considered “on-sale general eating place,” according to the License Query System Summary for Ricci’s application. This may mean it will be a restaurant with a bar. “It depends on how they want to set up their business,” Carr said.
The application is awaiting approval by the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, according to Carr. Applications typically take 45 to 90 days to be reviewed, but may take longer depending on a local process called a conditional use permit.
“They need to get a local business license from the local governing body saying ‘hey, I want to open a restaurant,’ or ‘hey I want to open this business.’ So they might be concurrently flowing through the local process,” Carr said.
Sue Jackson, the owner of Country Roads, was not available for comment. The daughter of Jackson, who works on the premises, said her family would have no comment on their apparent eviction. She advised vendors inside the antique mall and an individual outside of the store getting petitions signed not to give statements to Prowl.
The Country Roads property extends over two properties, owned by two separate landlords. The landlord of the half of the real estate not owned by Ricci was unconfirmed. It is uncertain what would happen to antique vendors that sell on Ricci’s side of the property.
“It’s not like Country Roads is going to go away, they are just probably going to be reduced in size,” Ricci said.
The other landlord can make their own decisions as to whether to continue renting to Country Roads.
The owner of the other half of the property could not be immediately located.
“I would imagine they would probably take the best vendors and keep them, or maybe adjust the spaces where they have the same amount of people but maybe smaller spaces. I don’t know how she’s [Sue Jackson, owner of Country Roads] going to do it, but that would be her decision not mine,” Ricci said.
Not all students support the location becoming a food court. Country roads is a good place for Chapman film majors to find things to use on set, said Kaia Whitney, a freshman broadcast journalism major. Whitney and other film students often go “prop-digging” at antique stores, she said.
“Antique stores sell things that are truly one of a kind. I would be so sad to see them be replaced by other businesses,” Whitney said.
The conversion is a hot topic with residents.
The antique stores are integral to the town’s independent, friendly and charming character, Glover said. But they are being replaced by a profusion of restaurants, according to Elsi Chambers, a retired coach from Orange High School.
“I am really at a conundrum here between private property rights and community obligation,” said Steve Adamson in a comment from the website NextDoor.
Chambers said that she moved to Orange to live in a safe and quiet historic town. An “escape from reality,” as she called it. The increase in restaurants and bars have attracted an abundance of strangers to Orange, making her feel unsafe. The change of use would put additional pressure on parking and increase traffic, she complained.
“I moved to Orange County so that my kids could play in the front and backyards of my house safely,” Chambers said. “Suddenly, with all these strangers in the neighborhood, it’s not as safe. People park in front of my house, and I worry about it.”
Attributing the lack of parking to restaurants and bars is a false analogy, according to Daniel Ortiz, a realtor and resident of Orange for more than 60 years. Increased parking in neighborhoods around the plaza is a result of more tenants, Ortiz said.
“If the negative factors that people bring up [in relation to Al Ricci’s plan] were as bad as they claim, the desirability and marketability of residential properties would not be at an all-time high,” Ortiz said.
For those who enjoy meandering and shopping in antique stores, these shops represent more than just stores that sell old things, but places where the past can be reminisced.
“Country Roads is a place where we can share our past with our little ones…it was offensive to see some people regard it as junk shops,” Chambers said, referring to a comment by Jake Brower on the website NextDoor.
Rejecting new businesses prevents the community from moving forward and adapting to modern changes, Ortiz said.
“It is possible to feel nostalgic and want to preserve the past, while at the same time, adapting to the ever changing dynamics of a community,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz, 58, said the generational divide is evident in his own family. He and his wife love strolling through antique stores. But his daughter, 30, and her friends prefer to dine out and spend their money at establishments selling new items.
“As a community, we must learn to adapt to the ever-changing business environment and to look toward the future, while not forgetting where you came from in the first place, especially in a community with as much history as ours,” Ortiz said.
Prowl will continue reporting on this issue and update the story as new information becomes available.