The Ride of Their Lives

Residents say, No way to city officials who want to bulldoze their neighborhood to build roller coasters

Photo by Jeanne RiceLeo and Verla Lambert own one of about 300 two-bedroom houses wedged between Garden Grove Boulevard and the 22 freeway. Like the rest of the houses on their street, their home was built during the Big Bang homebuilding boom of the mid-1950s. It's simple, modest and—notwithstanding a well-manicured, flower-lined lawn—not much to look at from the outside.

Hidden behind an exhaust-stained concrete wall and ignored by the city, the Lamberts' neighborhood may soon be added to Garden Grove's ever-expanding redevelopment project area. City officials, led by Mayor "Bulldozer" Bruce Broadwater, want to pave over the 264-acre area to make room for a major new theme park—carnival rides, roller coasters, hotels and restaurants.

The proposed theme park is perhaps the most grandiose solution to a problem created by the city's effort to lure Disneyland tourists into several hotels subsidized by taxpayers; since Sept. 11, the tourists haven't been coming in numbers sufficient to justify the huge amount of money the city has invested in the project. Hence the theme park—a redevelopment solution to a debt problem created by redevelopment.

On June 6, the Garden Grove Planning Commission approved the city's plan to add the neighborhood to its redevelopment zone. But the commission dropped 50 acres from the project because it wasn't run-down enough to justify being paved over. The Lamberts' home is still slated for possible bulldozing.

Assistant City Manager Matt Fertal insists a theme park is just one of the ideas proposed for the Lamberts' neighborhood. "There probably isn't a lot more demand for additional hotels unless another attraction is built," he said. The city has already built seven hotels, and with two more approved to open along Harbor Boulevard, a "major anchor project" such as a theme park is needed in order to keep them full. Full hotels mean a steady supply of hotel bed taxes flowing into the coffers of the city's cash-strapped redevelopment agency, which is already more than $100 million in debt.

Thanks to tens of millions of dollars in subsidies from the city, six hotels have already opened along Harbor Boulevard near the Lamberts' home in the past four years: the towering Crowne Plaza Resort, the Hampton Inn & Suites, the Hilton Garden Inn, the Hyatt Regency, the Embassy Suites, and the Homewood Suites.

Another hotel built on free land and through generous multimillion-dollar annual payments from the city's Agency for Community Development is the Marriott Hotel, which has yet to open its doors roughly six months behind schedule. The owners of all these hotels have simultaneously funelled tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Broadwater, as well as councilmen Mark Rosen and Mark Leyes, the mayor's two strongest pro-development allies.

Critics say Garden Grove's redevelopment plan was badly conceived. The new hotels will always have to compete with Anaheim, which has numerous hotels much closer to Disneyland, the county's top tourist destination. If Garden Grove is such a great place to open new hotels, they ask, why must the city lavish such generous financial assistance on the developers seeking to do business there?

"This is classic corporate welfare," said Chris Norby, a Fullerton City Council member who in January will become the county's Fourth District Supervisor. "It is resulting in some tremendous debt and the loss of some very affordable housing. Hotels should be built by private developers using their own private money, buying private land from private people—not doing it through some public subsidy."

Either way, the Lamberts have no intention of moving. "I can't see why the city can come in and put all my hard work in a landfill," Leo Lambert said. "I've lived here for 46 years. I'm retired; I have what I want in life. I am not going to move."

Between 1952 and 1954, Leo Lambert served as a parachute rigger with the U.S. Army Airborne in Korea and Japan and returned to Hutchinson, Kansas, to find that the only jobs were at the Carey Salt Mines near Wichita. His brother had recently moved to California and bought a home in an unincorporated area of Orange County near Harbor Boulevard and Chapman Avenue.

So, a generation after the fictional Joads of The Grapes of Wrath fame, Leo Lambert put his wife and two young children in the family car and headed west.

"If you're going to make money, you come to where the people are at," Leo said.

The couple moved to their home in 1956. Back then, Leo Lambert recalls, a belt of orange groves stretched along what is now the 22 freeway.

"To the south of us were orange groves, and we had a Little League field," he said. "My kids played ball out there. They'd run through the groves. But then the land was bought for the freeway . . . and this area just boomed. I mean, they started building 2,000 houses at a time. It was unbelievable."

Lambert says he wasn't bothered by the freeway or the new houses that quickly surrounded his neighborhood. For 35 years, he worked 14 to 16 hours per day as a truck driver and drywall hanger to feed his family. He'd start each day with a stomach-stretching meal at Belisles Restaurant, a neighborhood landmark that attracted such celebrities as Ronald Reagan, whose photograph decorated the restaurant's wall.

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