Disney sues to stop Anaheim condos


ANAHEIM -- The Happiest Place on Earth doesn't want any new neighbors.

The Walt Disney Co. has sued the city of Anaheim to stop the proposed construction of 1,500 condos, including several hundred low-income units, at the doorstep of Disneyland.

Housing advocates say the units are desperately needed to accommodate workers who are essential to the city's huge tourism industry but can't afford to live there. Many workers spend at least four hours a day commuting from outlying areas where rent is cheaper.

"We helped to build this resort, but now they're saying we can't live here," said Lori Condinus, a hotel switchboard operator who lives 60 miles away. "Disneyland is supposed to be the family friendly place, but they're not helping families make it."

Disneyland and other tourism-oriented businesses say that housing will drive away visitors from the park -- which pumps an estimated $3.6 billion into Southern California's economy each year -- and open the way for the return of the cheap motels, neon signs and scraggly landscaping that marked the area in the early days of Disneyland.

"We believe this is a very dangerous precedent, because once you allow one residential development in, where does it stop?" said Rob Doughty, Disneyland's vice president of communications. "We will do all we can to protect the value of the resort area."

The project would be on a 26-acre parcel just a few blocks from Disneyland and across the street from Disney-owned land that could someday be the site of another theme park. It would be inside a 2.2-square-mile resort district that was established in 1994 with Disney's encouragement.

Developer SunCal Cos. has pledged that at least 15% of the condos would be low-income units. Last week, it agreed to shoulder Anaheim's legal expenses as the city fights the lawsuit, the first ever filed by Disney against Anaheim.

Affordable housing advocates say the 2000 Census noted a need for 17,000 low-income units in Anaheim.

Experts say Disney's aggressive stance stems from Walt Disney himself, who despised the kitsch that grew up around Disneyland when it opened in 1955 and believed it detracted from the aura of his pristine fantasyland.

When Walt Disney World opened in Florida in 1971, the company persuaded the state Legislature to create a district around the resort that let Disney oversee development without interference. The district now includes four Disney parks and controls utilities, transportation and police and fire services in two towns.

"Disney's position is, this is our brand, we have a brand image to protect," said Cynthia King, director of the Center for Entertainment and Tourism at California State University, Fullerton. "People have an expectation, and you can't really hold that against them."

The resort district outside Disneyland's gates was established by state, local and federal officials to control development. It forced local businesses to change their signs and landscaping, and allowed only commercial, entertainment and tourism-related businesses in the area.

"Nightclubs and residences just don't belong next to each other," said Larry Slagle, chairman of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau. "It's just not compatible."

Last month, the City Council deadlocked 2-2 on a zoning change that would allow residential projects inside the resort district, which represents less than 5% of the land in the city.

The council is expected to decide next week whether to revisit the issue. One councilwoman who abstained from the first vote because of a potential conflict of interest could break the tie if an upcoming state review finds she can participate.

Doughty said Disney, which sued last month, is against any housing in the neighborhood, even multimillion-dollar homes.

"That's the vision that was set out in 1994," he said. "The track record shows it's been very successful."