Close Magic Mountain? Residents Aren't Thrilled

Times Staff Writers

When Magic Mountain opened 35 years ago, the theme park was billed as a magnet for development in the cattle ranches and pastoral hills of northern Los Angeles County -- much as a certain magic kingdom had put an obscure southern outpost on the map 15 years earlier.

"Remember what Disneyland did for property values in Anaheim?" read one real estate ad in 1970. "You should be living here when the Mountain comes. Your property values should be all uphill from here."

Move there they did, by the thousands, making the Santa Clarita Valley and surrounding region the fastest-growing section of Los Angeles County.

As more suburbanites flooded the north county, their relationship with the amusement park was mixed: It generated jobs and taxes, but residents disliked the traffic and crime that periodically caused problems.

But now, as Magic Mountain's owners talk about shutting it down and selling the 250 acres for development, residents are rallying to keep it around.

Their desire to save the park is driven both by nostalgia for the past and concerns about future development.

"I've never known a Santa Clarita without Magic Mountain," said Santa Clarita Councilman Cameron Smyth, who grew up in the area and worked as a ride operator as a teen. "It's part of the community ... and it's a landmark for the Santa Clarita Valley."

North L.A. County is in the midst of a major building boom -- adding an estimated 350,000 residents in the next 15 years -- and some residents say the region cannot handle another mega-development.

North of Magic Mountain, nearly 21,000 homes are rising on the old Newhall Ranch. Farther up Interstate 5, 23,000 homes are slated for the new community of Centennial near Tejon Ranch. And 15,000 to 20,000 homes are planned on the eastern edges of Santa Clarita.

"The growth here has been just ridiculous," said Valencia resident Jennifer Molidor, 34, who worked at the park as a photographer when she was a teenager and now takes her children there. "I think we have enough housing here."

Molidor and others in Santa Clarita say it is ironic that Magic Mountain has become a victim of the development boom that it helped create.

The Santa Clarita Valley's population was about 48,000 -- plus at least 6,000 head of cattle -- in 1971 when Magic Mountain opened. Now, it is 170,000 and growing. What started as a middle-class bedroom community has become an upscale suburb with high-end shopping as well as technology and entertainment businesses.

But as homes spread around Magic Mountain, residents grew unhappy about the crowd the park attracts.

While Disneyland has long catered to families, Magic Mountain has always been a magnet for teenagers lured by the venue's 17 roller coasters. Teen troublemakers have been a periodic problem.

Several high-profile crimes dismayed residents, including a gang-related stabbing spree in 1985, a riot that spilled from the park to businesses in 1993 and the shooting death of a teen in the parking lot in 1998.

In announcing his intention to sell Magic Mountain, Six Flags Chief Executive Mark Shapiro cited the park's rowdy teen atmosphere and how it has made it difficult to attract families.

"Once you burn Mom, she is not rushing back," Shapiro said.

Although Shapiro said it was possible that Magic Mountain would be sold to another theme park operator, some real estate experts have said the land is so valuable that converting it for housing or housing-retail development probably would yield the greatest profit.

Real estate experts estimate that the land could be worth at least $200 million.

But many in the Santa Clarita Valley say the region does not need more housing tracts. With traffic worsening and massive developments rising at a rapid clip, north county leaders are struggling to attract more jobs.

The area has some of the worse freeway gridlock in Southern California, and a Metropolitan Transportation Authority report said it will get far worse unless officials can find money to build more roads and rail lines.

On Interstate 5, motorists now crawl during rush-hour at an average of 26 mph. By 2020, according to the MTA, traffic speeds will be down to 11 mph. About 600,000 residents now live in the north county. But the Southern California Assn. of Governments expects the population to reach nearly 1 million by 2020.

Though the theme park generates traffic -- and about 2.5 million visitors a year -- community leaders say it is also a hub of economic activity that is more beneficial to the region than a housing development would be. The park is the region's largest employer, with about 4,000 workers.

"I have concerns just because it's such an economic driver for the valley," Councilman Smyth said. "If they choose to sell, the tax revenue that it generates would be a noticeable hit."

Larry Mankin, president and chief executive of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, said keeping Magic Mountain makes the most sense for the region in part because "it is part of our brand."

Still, Smyth and others say that if the park is sold for development, the land should be used for job-producing industrial, commercial and office development rather than homes.

But it remains unclear if there is a market for nonresidential use of the land. Moreover, the park is situated in an almost entirely residential area, potentially making it difficult for a dense commercial development to rise from it.

If Magic Mountain closes, it would not be the first Southern California amusement park to succumb to the pressure of development.

Busch Gardens, a tropical-themed park and bird sanctuary in Van Nuys, shut down in 1979 so that the adjacent Anheuser-Busch brewery could expand. Marineland of the Pacific, the water-themed amusement park on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, shut down in 1986. And Lion Country Safari in Irvine, a drive-through zoo concept where the animals roamed free, closed in 1984.

The trend isn't a surprise, said Los Angeles economist and author Joel Kotkin, noting that most amusement parks rose in the outskirts of town to take advantage of low land costs. But as development pushes out and property values rise, the economics of land-eating theme parks has become harder to justify, he said.

"Maybe the area where they built it was a great place to put a theme park at one time," Kotkin said. "But the fringe of suburbia is not so fringy anymore."

Since Six Flags announced its sales plan last month, many Santa Claritans have reminisced about summer jobs and high school outings at the park.

Resident Donna Moore said she could not imagine the area without Magic Mountain. For five years, Moore said, her 16-year-old son, Zachary, has bought a season pass to the park. Unless a good movie is in theaters, she said, the park is his Friday night ritual. She's gotten so used to carrying around Zachary's season pass that she pulled it out at an airport once as his identification.

"It's the only thing that keeps this city from being any other obscure place," she said.

Moore acknowledged that the park can be rowdy, but she said it has gotten a bad rap.

Not everyone is mourning the possible demise of Magic Mountain. Resident Darrell Mouw is a retired firefighter who in the past had responded to fights in the park.

"Disneyland doesn't have these kinds of problems," he said. "I wouldn't miss a thing."

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More growth projected

Six Flags Inc. is considering a plan to sell Magic Mountain in Valencia. Company officials say the park may be developed into homes. Some other housing developments already planned for the area:

1. Centennial: 23,000 homes

2. Newhall Ranch: 20,885 homes

3. Las Lomas: 5,800 homes

4. Ritter Ranch: 7,200 homes

5. Anaverde: 5,200 homes

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Population by the numbers

Cities and the unincorporated area in the vicinity of Magic Mountain are expected to add more than 350,000 residents between 2005 and 2020.

Lancaster

2005 population: 142,000

2020 projected population: 215,000

Palmdale

2005 population: 146,000

2020 projected population: 260,000

Santa Clarita

2005 population: 170,000

2020 projected population: 211,000

Unincorporated areas

2005 population: 157,000

2020 projected population: 281,000

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Amusement park closures

Some other local amusement parks that have gone out of business in the last three decades:

*--* Name Location Closed Marineland of the Pacific Palos Verdes Peninsula 1986 Lion Country Safari Irvine 1984 Busch Gardens Van Nuys 1979 Long Beach Pike Long Beach 1970s*

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* Gradually shut down over a period of years beginning in the 1970s.

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Sources: Southern California Assn. of Governments, Times reports

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday, August 21, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction Terranea resort: An article in Business on Thursday about the new Terranea resort on the site of the Marineland of the Pacific theme park on the Palos Verdes Peninsula said the park closed in 1986. It closed in February 1987. The 1986 date also mistakenly appeared in a Travel article July 26 on the hotel; an article in Section A on July 2, 2006, about the Magic Mountain theme park; and a Business article Sept. 16, 2005, about the hotel.
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