Shop owners want to be a part of the historic district’s hip transformation.
ORANGE – Carol Gunderson arrived at the Orange Plaza hoping to find a dresser no one else seemed to have.
She wanted a Victorian claw foot, a rare piece of furniture built more than 100 years ago. Within minutes, she saw one inside the Antique Mall of Treasures on South Glassell Street. Then she found another at the Orange Circle Antique Mall.
Plaza’s performance in fiscal year 2012-13
Taxable revenue: $62 million
Breakdown: 60 percent restaurants, 40 percent retail shops (mostly antique stores)
FISCAL YEAR 2002-03:
Taxable revenue: $36 million
Breakdown: 30 percent restaurants, 70 percent retail shops (mostly antique stores)
Source: City of Orange
“There is no other place anywhere else that has this collection of treasures,” said Gunderson, who drove two hours from Carlsbad to downtown Orange. “This is really the antique hunter’s dream.”
For decades, the Plaza has served as the unofficial antique capital of Southern California, a business district drawing shoppers looking for classic collectibles and furniture. But for the past few years, the area has seen a string of new restaurants, boutiques, bars, coffee shops and other businesses slowly change the appearance of the square-mile downtown.
The number of antique shops has dropped by nearly half compared to 20 years ago, the peak of Orange’s antique industry. Today, five antique malls – with vendor booths – and nine antique dealers remain. About a dozen other collectible shops are in the area.
Many antique-store owners and shoppers feel like they’re being pushed out. Higher rents for antique shops, as well as restaurant-friendly city regulations aimed at drawing businesses that generate more tax revenue, are to blame, they said.
“The antique shops are an iconic industry that saved Old Towne,” said Dennis Caldwell, owner of the Chapman Antique Mall on East Chapman Avenue. “Now they’re trying to turn the area into something else.”
Antique shops took hold in Old Towne in the 1970s and ’80s after grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies and other shops steadily began leaving. Many credit the antique stores with preventing the Plaza from becoming inundated with abandoned, boarded-up storefronts.
By the 2000s, the city began easing parking restrictions, allowing restaurants and bars to open without having to provide scores of new parking stalls for customers. The ongoing expansion of Chapman University in Old Towne also helped draw businesses aimed at younger customers.
“There is a definite push to cater to the college crowd,” said Betsy Sommers, a vendor inside Orange Circle Antique Mall. “College kids want bars and restaurants. They don’t want antique shops.”
Orange Mayor Teresa “Tita” Smith said market demands dictate more than anything whether any business at the Plaza succeeds or closes.
“Landlords go where they can get the highest rent,” she said.
The mayor said many antique owners left over the past decade because websites such as eBay allowed them to sell their goods online instead of in a showroom that required paying rent.
Realtor Al Ricci, one of the Plaza’s biggest property owners, said antique stores and the newer businesses can thrive together.
“The Plaza is like a mall. We need a mix of business. If we only had restaurants, the area would quickly become oversaturated,” said Ricci, whose tenants include Francoli Gourmet, Smoqued California Barbeque and Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen.
“Some people might come for the restaurants, but then they walk around and shop in other businesses, including the antique stores,” he said. “We’re not trying to run antique stores out of town. We want all the businesses here to thrive.”