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Disney Spins Negative Fantasia About Housing

Why did nobody tell me that market-rate housing had become a NIMBY issue? Did I sleep through this momentous event, just as I sawed a log through the Northridge earthquake? Here I am, bumbling through life as if nothing special is happening, while unbeknownst to me The Walt Disney Company is having one of its most creative moments since it released Dumbo.

Unfortunately, that legendary creativity has gone into cooking up the notion that housing is somehow inappropriate, even damaging, to a resort area. My only hope is that places like Aspen or Tahoe or Biarritz, where condos are as plentiful as pinecones, do not find out about the bad effect that housing poses to resort communities. I tremble to think of the peril to property values!

No matter. Disney has campaigned vigorously against a 1,500-unit housing development proposed by SunCal, an Orange County homebuilder, slated for a site now containing two mobile home parks near Disneyland and related attractions. Fifteen percent of SunCal's units (a whopping 225 in all) are earmarked for low-income people, such as the majority of Disneyland employees. The rub is that the new housing would overlap a district known as the Anaheim Resort. This area includes the Disney attractions as well as the city's convention center and surrounding touristy areas.

With landscaping and signage work completed in 2001, Anaheim's resort district is a workable solution to the problem of tackiness and blight, such as motels with cartoon motifs in their blinking neon signs, that sprouted in this former farm town during the 52 years since the founding of Disneyland. The resort district regulations and public investments eliminated most of the kitsch, and provide a green and pleasant backdrop for the Disney attractions in Anaheim, which by now include Disney's California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping-and-dining venue. New design guidelines provide grass and landscaping where concrete and asphalt pavement formerly simmered in the sun. The same guidelines forced hotels and restaurants to modify their signage, and sometimes even their facades. In short, the resort district is a victory for Disney's quest for total control of its environment. Better yet for Disney, the improvements to the resort area were built on the public's dime, even though the city's general fund is a tiny fraction of the company's market cap.

Disney thinks housing is bad for business, and that hotels would be a better idea than housing. The problem is that Anaheim, like California as a whole, has been plagued by a housing deficit for decades and demonstrably needs housing more than any other type of development. The "stark reality" is that the city needs 27,600 affordable housing rentals, Councilwoman Lori Galloway, one of the most vocal supporters of the housing development, wrote in an April 15 editorial in the Orange County Register. In lieu of finding any affordable housing in the city, many local service workers are living in motel rooms, often with several families sharing a single mailbox.

Disney officials are so peeved with Ms. Galloway for her support of the housing, by the way, that security guards escorted her off Disney property earlier this year following a television interview, and promised to arrest her if she had the temerity to return. This contemptuous treatment of an elected official in her own city says much about Disney's regard for local government. (Disney's own Celebration development in Florida has no elected officials.)

Disney obviously believes that housing will slip a mickey to the Magic Kingdom. "Allowing residential development in the Resort Area will stunt future growth of the local economy and significantly reduce future tax revenues," said Rob Doughty, Disneyland Resort spokesman, in a prepared statement before the City Council approved the project on a 3-2 vote on April 25. When Doughty mentioned stunting "growth," however, he was likely speaking in code. What he really meant to say, I believe, was that SunCal intends to build a slum at the doorstep of Disneyland. Almost immediately, Disney said it had already collected 20,000 signatures to put the project up for referendum.

The equation of low-income housing with crime-ridden slum is the traditional view of the frightened suburbanite, who thinks that "low-income household" is liberal-ese for shiftless, dark-skinned people who fill their backyards with chickens and broken washing machines and their front yards with junked cars, while they sit around drinking beer and listening to heartbreak songs in some foreign language. The Register is filled with fearful letters to the editor.

One concerned citizen writes about an "affordable housing complex" in north Anaheim, where "every patio was jam packed with clutter, rusted appliances and moldy clothing and storage boxes etc." Later, walking outside one night, he sees "what looked like a drug deal between a resident of the complex and a dealer!" Another correspondent believes the city is spending too much money on poor people: "I wish the county would intervene with this relentless city and say enough with the wasting of taxpayers (sic) money start putting it towards your current residents." Anaheim residents, he adds, have "been neglected for this small percentage of poor people and it is sickening."

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Disney is encouraging this level of fear and hostility, particularly among the small business owners who depend on Disney, and who have developed something of a Stockholm Syndrome when the Big Mouse squeaks.

Why is Disney so averse to housing? I think it is the fear of losing control of its surroundings. The company, of course, has a legitimate interest in the design and compatibility of the housing. Rather than negotiate with the developer like a civilized organization, however, Disney wants to put the kibosh on the entire housing effort simply because Disney itself neither owns nor controls it.

The desire for control like other human appetites, can never be fully satisfied. I recommend that Disney recognize its limitations, take a deep breath and direct its attention to more profitable ventures. Just as urban plans were made to have exceptions, the illusion of control was made to be frustrated.

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