Anaheim project may launch an uncivil war

Times Staff Writer

In what will probably be a test of political might and financial resources, housing advocates will do battle with Disneyland and tourist leaders next summer in an election that could change the once cozy relationship between the entertainment giant and the city that Walt Disney helped define.

The Anaheim City Council decided late Tuesday to place a Disney-backed referendum on the June ballot asking voters to decide the fate of a housing project in the town’s polished Resort District.

The vote will mark a rare -- and no doubt, expensive -- showdown between city leaders and Anaheim’s best-known corporate citizen. Disney wants voters to overturn the council’s decision to permit as many 1,500 homes to be built near land where it eventually plans to open a third amusement park. Disney hopes to maintain the area for tourist-friendly uses such as hotels and shops.


The two sides could square off two more times. A Disney-backed coalition turned in more than 30,000 signatures Wednesday for a ballot initiative that would give voters the opportunity to block any future housing project in the Resort District, a move that would essentially give Disney an added layer of protection. A developer-backed measure that would give voters zoning control over Disney’s planned third theme park also appears to be headed for the June ballot.

“Disney isn’t picking up and moving anywhere,” said Mark P. Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine. “Disney is stuck. They aren’t like an automobile manufacturer that can leave town. Disneyland’s not Disneyland if it’s in Sacramento. Disneyland is associated with Southern California and Anaheim.”

But Petracca admits that he has never seen such a nasty public argument between Anaheim and its largest employer.

One resident at Tuesday’s council meeting even called the dispute “a civil war.”

The yearlong zoning dispute over a 26-acre parcel across the street from Disney’s planned third theme park made headlines in the New York Times and International Herald-Tribune and provided spoof material for “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Since Disney and tourist officials began collecting signatures for its initiative and referendum, Anaheim residents have been inundated with mailers and television and radio spots from both sides.

Housing advocates and some religious leaders have lined up behind SunCal Cos., the condo-apartment complex’s developer, in hopes that the proposed low-cost housing units would help alleviate the city’s housing shortage. Tourist officials are backing Disney over concern that the more than $6 billion in public and private funds poured into the Resort District 13 years ago will be wasted if the area returns to its past, marked by a prevalence of seedy motels, tacky shops and neon signs.

On the council, the issue has made for some unusual alliances.

Lorri Galloway, a Democrat and housing advocate, is paired with Republicans Lucille Kring and Bob Hernandez, property rights advocates who believe SunCal should be allowed to build its kind of project.


Mayor Curt Pringle and Harry Sidhu have supported Disney and the tourism industry, which provides the city with 40% of its general fund.

Both sides have shown a willingness to spend money to get their point across.

Disney has already dumped more than $1.5 million into its ballot measure campaigns, and SunCal has given $400,000 to a group fighting to bring housing to the tourist zone.