A Tale of Two Anaheims

Disney may have won the day against the construction of affordable housing in its "tourism zone" but the coalition forged in the struggle against The Mouse is alive and well and pushing for a community benefits agreement in Anaheim's Platinum Triangle development.

Overlays that allow for some affordable housing in Anaheim were the result of years of pressure by housing advocates, says Scott Darrell, the Kennedy Commission’s executive director. “The political environment was such that we couldn’t get inclusionary zoning,” he says.

Advocates say the notion of affordable housing near Disneyland clashed with Disney’s plans for a third theme park — in addition to Disneyland and California Adventure — across the street from the SunCal site. Disney is tight-lipped, but the new park is most likely based on Disney Discovery Cove in Orlando: $249 tickets and a tony image at variance with the notion of affordable housing.

Rob Doughty, vice president of communications for Disney, summed up Disney’s view in an interview: “Our position has always been that the Anaheim resort area was designed to be for tourist services only,” he said. “Our focus has always been protecting that vision.”

Just two days after the April council vote that allowed the SunCal project to advance, Disney hauled out the heavy artillery. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle led the charge. Pringle, a former GOP state assemblyman who, in addition to his duties as Anaheim mayor runs a governmental relations consulting firm, took the lead at a news conference to herald a new Disney-backed coalition: Save Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR). As a SOAR co-chair, Pringle also announced the launch of a petition drive to put a referendum on the issue on the June 3, 2008 city ballot. Fifty-four percent of city revenues, Pringle argues, come from the resort district, the majority from the so-called “bed tax” that hotels pay. Converting the resort district land use from hotel to residential undercuts the city’s income.

Despite SOAR’s endorsements from Anaheim police and firefighters groups and the lavish member profiles on the SOAR Web site, the coalition was more like pricey Astroturf than grass roots. Disney spent $1.7 million for SOAR and its successful efforts to qualify both the referendum and another pro-Disney measure for the municipal ballot. The referendum became moot when Disney won. And, in Anaheim style, the council later voted 3-2 to adopt SOAR’s pro-Disney ballot initiative.

Communications vice president Doughty referred most questions from Shelterforce to a SOAR spokesperson who turned out to be a staffer for powerhouse public relations firm Porter-Nevelle.

Not that SunCal rolled over easily. The company ponied up $700,000 to form the Committee to Defend and Protect Anaheim, which threatened a counter-Disney ballot initiative. SOAR supporters showed up all summer long and into the fall, each time the City Council was faced with a project-related decision.

Speakers against the development introduced a strong whiff of xenophobia at one meeting when they showed up in T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of the Minutemen, the self-appointed civilian border patrol group that many liken to vigilantes.

SOAR supporters were far outnumbered by the resort workers mobilized by the ad-hoc coalition of the union, OCCORD, and the Kennedy Commission.

The employees testified about two-hour commutes to outlying areas where housing prices are more in line with their budgets, or how they crowd multiple families into two bedroom apartments. On one occasion, the pro-housing activists pitched a red tent city in front of City Hall to demonstrate the need for affordable housing.

But for all that, Disney won in November 2007.

The SunCal deal foundered when Frank Family Partnership, the owner of the property SunCal had been working to acquire for three years, suddenly declared SunCal in default of its purchase contract because the company failed to close the deal by Oct. 1, 2007. SunCal countered that action, filing suit against Frank Family, accusing it of undermining SunCal’s efforts to obtain the government entitlements necessary to close the deal. It also complained of interference by a third party that was clearly Disney.

After SunCal filed suit, the councilwoman who had provided the swing vote in favor of the project reversed her stance. She did not return calls for comment, but told The Orange County Register, “I believe we need to keep the resort area special.”

By the time the deal collapsed, the subprime mortgage debacle had deflated the market, stalling virtually all condo development throughout Orange County.

Despite the outcome, activists claim a significant victory. That the city council stood up to the mighty Mouse for as long as it did shows a change in power relations. “The fact that Disney had to organize SOAR, that SOAR was going to the ballot box and threatening recalls is completely new,” says Eric Altman, executive director of OCCORD. “The way that things have happened in the past is not the way they will happen in the future.” The needs of working families are not yet adequately addressed, he says, but adds, “The dynamic has changed. For the first time we had working families very engaged in the process.”

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Bobbi Murray is a communications professional who began her career as a grassroots organizer and has worked as a radio producer, fundraiser, media liaison and journalist. Her reporting has taken on a broad sweep of issues--politics, police reform, economic justice, immigration, globalization and labor in such publications as LA WEEKLY, the LOS ANGELES TIMES, LA CITY BEAT and LOS ANGELES magazine, as well as THE NATION.

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