Anaheim First is averse to being chided as nothing more than a pro-Resort front since its inception a year ago at the behest of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation. Either way, the controversial nonprofit backed by deep pockets is able to do things that grassroots groups could only dream of, like running ads in the OC Register promoting a series of town halls throughout Anaheim’s six council districts. Anaheim First followed those up by sending slick mailers, like the ones stuffed in mailboxes come election time, inviting residents to its District 1 town hall.
The West Anaheim Youth Center played host to about 100 people who turned out on Wednesday evening to get involved in Anaheim First’s work supporting Mayor Harry Sidhu’s initiative to invest $250 million into neighborhoods over the next ten years.
“It’s long overdue in West Anaheim, we all know that,” Jodie Mosley, a Sidhu supporter and Anaheim First Advisory Council member, told the town hall attendants. “Now we have a chance to participate and contribute our ideas [about] where we’d like that money to go.”
After the brief introduction, the meeting turned to Karen Gulley of PlaceWorks, a SanTana-based urban planning consulting firm. She primed residents on the agenda for the evening and explained her version of what Anaheim First does. The town hall proved to be the first step in a community assessment, one that a city council majority voted to donate $250,000 to Anaheim First in order to subcontract out. It’s the initial phase of Sidhu’s grandiose plan.
“We have eight months to develop ideas for each of the districts,” said Gulley. “The process consists of two parts. While we’re reaching out to you, we’re also analyzing data from the city. Tonight is really about listening to you about the issues and the needs that you see in your neighborhood.”
Gulley boosted former councilwoman Kris Murray’s Quality Rental Housing Program before discussing numerous poster boards meant to explain what a city can do to improve communities. She pointed to one labeled “neighborhood transformation” that highlighted the redevelopment of Anaheim’s Jeffery-Lynne barrio into “Hermosa Village” a decade ago.
A community assessment report full of city-wide recommendations is due March 2020. But before that can happen, residents at the town hall had to get to talking.
From the back of the room, Laura Cunningham directed Gulley to wrap up her presentation so that the town hall could turn to breakout groups. She’s the wife of Anaheim Blog’s Matt Cunningham who, unsurprisingly, wrote uncritically of the event while finding an opportunity to hammer away at Unite Here Local 11 union members for crashing the discussion session. Todd Ament, Anaheim Chamber of Commerce president and Anaheim First board member, confirmed to the Weekly that Laura worked for the Chamber, but not Anaheim First.
The distinction didn’t seem to matter much during the town hall–or after. Laura helped clean up the gym to close out the night.
When the hour-long breakout groups finished their brainstorming over tables with maps of District 1, a representative from each listed off some community improvement ideas. Far from stirring up support for resort-area subsidies or an Angel Stadium giveaways, residents rallied causes closer to home. With Buena Park and even Stanton redeveloping their slice of Highway 39, many expressed a desire to see fulfillment of Anaheim’s Beach Boulevard Specific Plan, more retail options and improvements to existing strip malls.
A progressive idea or two even managed to squeeze by like affordable housing, especially as a means to address homelessness.
All sounded polite enough but with a heavy overlap between the town hall’s turnout and the reactionary West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council (WAND), that could only last so long. Mosley closed out the report backs with an unfiltered wish list. “Beach Boulevard is the first important thing on our list because once they get rid of the motels, obviously, everything else will fall into place,” she said. “We don’t want any more strip malls with cheap restaurants and cheap places.”
After the meeting wrapped up, participants placed blue dot stickers next to neighborhood improvement ideas that they favored on butcher paper lists. Affordable housing paled in comparison to the sticker flurries surrounding wanting to see improved strip malls, more retail options and an upgraded commercial code enforcement.
Even though Gulley didn’t mention the connection, PlaceWorks was the lead consultant on the Beach Boulevard Specific Plan, an effort to economically reboot the 1.5 mile corridor. Gulley’s also affiliated with the American Planning Association, the same group that gave downtown SanTana a “Great Neighborhood” award in 2016, one that anti-gentrification activists protested. But Anaheim First critics have their eyes set on its expected astroturfing in favor of Anaheim Resort and Platinum Triangle developments that gentrification elsewhere in the city isn’t even on their radar–yet.
Such concerns aren’t without merit. Anaheim First members toured the construction site of the subsidized JW Marriott hotel project by Bill O’Connell and held a meeting there in April. Prior to the town hall, the group had a private summit in July at the Anaheim DoubleTree Suites, another subsidized O’Connell property.
By all accounts, the catering looked more mouth-watering at the DoubleTree Suites meeting as opposed to the cookie trays and bottled water offered last week. The next Anaheim First town hall takes place this evening at 5:30 p.m. at the Brookhurst Community Center in District 2. Don’t come for the food!
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!