Disney rift with its city could endure

Times Staff Writer

In a city that long ago hitched its wagon to Disney’s star, it was a rare and sobering rejection. Over the fierce objections of the entertainment giant, the Anaheim City Council cleared the way for low-cost housing right across the street from where Disney someday plans to build a third amusement park.

The classic battle between housing advocates and tourist officials, simmering for nearly a year, is likely to dominate city politics for months to come and spill into next year’s elections.

Political observers called the vote something of a declaration of independence for Anaheim and say it portended a chill between city politicians and Disney brass.

Just a decade ago the city was all but branding itself Disneytown. The entertainment empire owned the city’s two professional sports teams and was building a second theme park.

But as the city struggles with trying to find housing for the thousands of service workers who support the tourist industry, Anaheim has found itself on a collision course with Disney.


In many respects, Disney saw it coming.

A company spokesman had a losing statement prepared for the news media minutes after the vote. And Disney, already in an offensive mode, had filed a lawsuit to block the development and had joined forces with business leaders in a bid to force a citywide election that would preserve the area for tourist-related uses.

“There were no surprises,” conceded Todd Ament, president of Anaheim’s Chamber of Commerce.

Even Mayor Curt Pringle, the project’s strongest and most fervent council opponent, seemed resigned to defeat moments before the vote. “I’ve seen the way this was going for some time,” he said.

At issue is a plan to build about 1,275 condos and 225 low-cost apartments that might appeal to the resort’s workforce, on land designated for tourist-related uses. The property is currently home to an aging mobile home park.

Disney contends a sprawling housing community would jeopardize its vision for the area. The company envisions boutique hotels and pricey time-share units, as well as the eventual third park in the area.

The council vote changes the land’s zoning to permit housing, but the project proposal must come back for a final vote. A specific plan has not been submitted.

There are also legal and political issues ahead. Disney has challenged the environmental documents that support the project, saying they fail to address the impact of putting housing in an area that had been zoned for tourism. The company is also pushing a citywide referendum that would ask voters to do what the council refused to do: block the housing.

Cynthia King, director of Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Entertainment and Tourism Studies, wonders whether the council’s choice of housing over tourist-friendly uses in that spot could put the city and Disney on divergent paths and fracture their historically cozy relationship.

“It’s almost like this symbolic thing that they finally stepped up to Disney,” King said. The vote, she said, could signal a shift in vision in a town that had long banked on tourism.

The action also might prompt Disney to become more involved in local political campaigns, she said. In the past, Disney has sprinkled its campaign dollars to a variety of candidates rather than supporting a few favorites.

“It didn’t occur to them there would be opposition to this,” King said. “I understand why they felt blindsided. They probably felt the council would think, ‘Why wouldn’t we want to put hotels here and why wouldn’t we want to expand the tourist district? This is what we do.’ That was a reasonable thought for them to have.”

The night’s winners -- housing advocates -- appeared more relieved and weary than joyous.

“I don’t feel like I’m in the mood to celebrate,” said Cesar Covarrubias of the Kennedy Commission, which advocates for low-cost housing. “It’s a good step in the right direction to keep the affordable-housing dialogue going.”

The six-hour public hearing was the council’s second attempt to settle the dispute. In February, the council deadlocked 2 to 2 on whether to permit the project. The project would replace about 250 mobile homes on the property at Katella Avenue and Haster Street.

In a February vote, council members Lorri Galloway and Bob Hernandez voted for the zoning change. They were joined Tuesday by Lucille Kring, who had abstained from the earlier vote because of a potential conflict of interest.

Kring said she “prayed and agonized” over the issue before opting to approve the rezoning. She cited earlier controversial projects in Anaheim that have prospered, such as the Mexican grocery store Gigante and GardenWalk, a nearly completed upscale retail center that Disney once opposed.

“If there is proper planning,” Kring said later in the day Wednesday, “this project can also be something we can be proud of and an asset in the resort district.”

About 150 resort workers, many employed at Disney hotels, attended the meeting in support of the development. Because of a packed council chamber, many sat in folding chairs in the lobby or stood in hallways. Some wore stickers stating “Yes in Mickey’s Back Yard” (YIMBY). The dozen or so employees remaining at the meeting when the project was approved let out a cheer.

In a prepared statement, Disney said it was disappointed by the council’s vote and looked forward to a citywide vote on the matter: “This is a bad precedent and if allowed to stand is likely to lead to several more proposals to permit non-tourist uses in the resort area.”

Tourist officials note that the resort area makes up less than 5% of the city’s land but generates nearly 50% of the city’s general fund. Disney prefers that the parcel be developed as an upscale hotel-condo project.

Chamber officials, who favor a citywide vote, said Tuesday that enough signatures had been gathered to put such a measure on the February ballot. If approved, it would prevent residential projects within the city’s resort district.

Pringle intimated that he would be involved in the ballot campaign.

“Others have said this issue is a passion of theirs,” said Pringle, who with fellow Councilman Harry Sidhu opposed the project. “My passion is to ensure that the present and future of this city is economically secure. There was a plan to assure that ... and I am prepared to stand up for it.”

In a new argument Tuesday, Disney officials provided city officials with a thick packet asserting that, among other things, the residential project would exacerbate global warming because of the traffic it would generate.

Attorneys for SunCal Cos., the project’s developer, countered that the threat of “global climate change” is not a new phenomenon and should have been introduced long before Tuesday’s meeting.

“Al Gore’s book has been around for a while,” said SunCal attorney Michael Zischke.

In a staff report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting, the city revealed what part of its strategy would be in fighting the Disney lawsuit, which demands that the environmental analysis the city approved to move the project forward be nullified.

City staffers said the project was consistent with the goals of the city’s 2004 update to its general plan: “Encourage mixed-use development to create places where people can live, work and shop in order to reduce potential traffic trips.”

Staff documents also pointed out that the property had been used for residential purposes for decades as a mobile home park and “there are no new significant environmental effects” that weren’t analyzed when the 2004 update was completed.

In all, 54 speakers -- 27 on each side -- stepped to the lectern. As the clock approached midnight, an exhausted Pringle made light of the marathon session. Bill O’Connell, a resort district hotel owner, told Pringle the line of speakers was getting shorter. Pringle quipped: “So is my life.”