Friday, March 23, 2007

Fear and Loathing in the Land of Disney

Once upon a time, a "Magic Kingdom" opened among orange groves and walnut trees in a rural, bucolic community in North Orange County. Over the years, as this "Magic Kingdom" has grown, the rural area transformed into suburban sprawl, and then into urban sprawl.
And during all this time, the two seemed to be growing together pretty well...

Until now. (From LA Times)

Putting itself on a collision course with the city's largest and most famous employer, the Anaheim City Council voted 3 to 2 Tuesday night to reopen debate on whether to allow housing in the resort district — a proposal Disney has fiercely opposed.

The vote is the latest escalation in the debate between city leaders and Disney officials on what belongs in a neighborhood dominated by Disneyland and California Adventure.

So what does this mean for Mickey Mouse, the poor folks who work for him, and the all the neighbors who have to live near him? I'll tell you about it down below...

(Cross-posted at Calitics)

So what exactly has been happening in Anaheim for all these years. Local blogger Mike Randall can explain:

Disney and the City of Anaheim have a long political relationship, that sometimes ends well and sometimes ends in disaster. When Disney owned the Anaheim Angels, the City bent over backwards to approve renovations to aging Anaheim Stadium. Disney responded by renaming the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels (and then it all went down hill later due to Arte Moreno's geographically challenged naming scheme). When Michael Eisner had an idea to continue to profit off of Disney's Mighty Ducks Movies, the Walt Disney Corporation was granted an expansion team by the NHL and Anaheim moved to annex additional land bordering the City of Orange to build the Anaheim Arena (later renamed to the Arrowhead Pond, and now the Honda Center under the Samueli's). At one time three professional sports teams played within the city limits of Anaheim, but the Rams left for St. Louis and for the Rams the rest was history.

As for the theme park, Disney and Anaheim have made a long list of concessions to each other. During the initial planning for Disney's California Adventure Park, Anaheim developed and zoned the area bordered by the 5 Freeway, Walnut Street, Anaheim Boulevard, and terminating past the Anaheim Convention Center as the Anaheim Resort District. This special district has special use regulations for items such as appearance, signs, zoning, and other items to make the area friendly to tourists. A similar district in Anaheim is the Platinum Triangle, a new high-rise residence area with shops and restaurants, a quasi-downtown, which is currently under development but far from the grasp of Disney. It's the Anaheim Resort District, and the prospect of housing along with a possible "Third Gate" (the term that is thrown around when a new theme park is rumored to be in the planning stage), that is causing the biggest riff between the City and Disney that residents have ever seen.

OK, now that we know the background, we can see the real issues surrounding the current controversy that is the prospect of affordable housing being built within the Anaheim Resort District. The city sees the need to build affordable housing for the people who work in the Resort District, and a majority of the city council may be willing to build that housing for these workers close to where they actually work...

But how would this affect Disney's plans to build a third theme park? How would this affect plans to build timeshare units to sell to tourists who want to own a little chunk of the "Magic Kingdom"? Could this affordable housing project hamper Disney's plans to remake Anaheim in Orlando's image? Disney now sees the looming threat, and they're now planning to fight back, both in court and on the ballot. (Also from LA Times)

The election plan is the latest in a series of aggressive steps the entertainment giant has taken to prevent a 1,500-unit condo-apartment complex, and others like it, from taking shape near Disneyland and California Adventure.

Disney, which last month sued the city to block the project, has been unbending in its position that the area be reserved for tourist-related uses such as hotels, time-share units and, ultimately, a third Disney amusement park.

At a hastily called press conference Monday, Disneyland President Ed Grier said the ballot initiative represented "a permanent solution to protect the resort." The initiative would require Anaheim voters to approve or reject any land-use changes within the 2.2-square-mile resort district.

Yet on the same day that Disney announced this "SOAR" Initiative to "save the Resort District", the Fair Political Practices Commission ruled that Lucille Kring, the Anaheim City Councilmember who abstained on the 2-2 deadlock vote on the housing project, WAS NOT OBLIGATED TO ABSTAIN on the vote. Apparently since Kring has (so far) NOT ACTED on her intent to build a wine bar in a proposed shopping center in the Resort District, she has no conflict of interest by voting on Resort District matters. Now remember that Disney's lawyers asked Kring to abstain on this vote, supposedly concerned about her supposed "conflict of interest"...
But did they have some other interest in mind? Mike Randall may have the answer:

The "Third Gate" seems to be the main reason for the pre-emptive strike by Walt Disney Co. rumors have been increasing that the company wants to bring the Cruise Line to the West Coast on a permanent basis, build large blocks of time shares, and zero in on high-end consumers with specialty hotels. According to the Los Angeles Times, Disney's posturing is backed by a rebound in post 9/11 travel and a 30% revenue increase after a successful 50th anniversary celebration. In my honest opinion, I'm surprised Disney would move this quickly with plans for a "third-gate" when Disney's California Adventure still gets the following monikers from locals: "Dirt Cheap Attractions" and "DOA" (Dead on Arrival). Disney has purchased a 46 acre area just Southeast of the current Theme Parks for a "future project" and according to local business and landowners, many have been approached to sell their land. To whom and for what still remains unknown.

In my honest opinion, I'm not all that surprised. Disney, after all, has not quite had the best relationship with its neighbors. Disney simply sees the "Anaheim Resort District" as one of its biggest cash cows, and they simply do not want to lose this VERY scared cow. However, Disney also refuses to think about what might be best for the Resort District, and for the company, in the long term, as they refuse to deal with the serious problem that is the affordable housing crisis in Southern California. After all, if we don't deal with nearby affordable housing for these workers now, then we may have to deal with their freeway commutes from the Inland Empire soon.

So can all out political warfare over a 2.2 square mile cast a gloomy shadow over "The Happiest Place on Earth"? Will the dreams of Anaheim residents, and the dreams of Resort District workers, be silenced by Mickey Mouse? And can a Disney power grab over the "Resort District" lock Anaheim residents out of their very own "Magic Kingdom"?

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