Photo by Jeanne RiceFor the first half of this year, the city of Garden Grove was at war. The conflict was over such basic issues as land, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—happiness being either a ranch-style home or a Motel 6.
In the end, the good guys won. Then again, the bad guys did, too.
It all began four years ago, when Mayor Bruce "Bulldozer" Broadwater declared nearly 20 percent of his city "blighted" and made it part of the city's redevelopment area. As his nickname suggests, Broadwater has spent most of his time in office purging neighborhoods of unprofitable mobile homes inhabited by senior citizens and paving over them to make room for hotels.
So far, seven hotels have been built in hopes of snaring tourists heading for Anaheim's Disney Resort, and two more have been approved. In the process, the city has bulldozed hundreds of units of affordable housing. Through annual subsidies, the city also gave millions of dollars per year to the hotel developers—money that was supposed to be paid back through bed taxes.
But the tourists never came, at least not in sufficient numbers to keep the city's redevelopment agency—which is still more than $100 million in debt—from going bankrupt. So Broadwater came up with another bad idea: authorizing the city to use eminent domain to add more than 200 acres of land to the redevelopment area and give that to theme park developers: a redevelopment solution to a debt problem created by redevelopment.
Enter Leo and Verla Lambert, a couple who has lived in Garden Grove since 1956, a year before it became incorporated as a city. In January of this year, their new next-door neighbor, Manny Ballesteros, asked them if they had received the same letter he had: a notice saying the city planned to add their neighborhood to its redevelopment plan. Together with Ballesteros, the Lamberts began organizing fellow residents into a group that could prevent the city from seizing their homes; they called themselves the Coalition of Concerned Garden Grove Citizens.
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On May 29, City Manager George Tindall attended a meeting with those residents at the Lamberts' home. Trying to assuage their fears, he promised that nobody would lose their homes, at least not for the next five years, but he added that the city reserved the right to seize the land at any point thereafter during the next 30 years. A week later, on June 6, the Garden Grove Planning Commission approved the city's plan to add the neighborhood to its redevelopment zone.
Later that month, more than 700 residents joined the Lamberts and jammed a public hearing on the redevelopment project. They demanded the city promise not to bulldoze their neighborhood to make room for roller coasters. They got their promise: on July 2, the Garden Grove City Council voted unanimously not to turn the Lamberts' neighborhood into a theme park.
It was an unprecedented victory. But like General George McLellan surveying the blood-stained cornfields of Antietam, the Concerned Citizens of Garden Grove won the battle but failed to capture the grander prize: total annihilation of the enemy. After defeating the theme-park proposal, they went home and stayed away from City Hall, where their nemesis plotted his re-election campaign, plastering the city with billboards paid for by massive contributions from hotel developers.
On election day, Broadwater won 66.7 percent of the votes, beating Tony Flores, the only candidate running on the anti-redevelopment ticket, by a whopping 40 percentage points. As if to thumb his nose at the working people whose homes he had threatened to cover with asphalt, Broadwater's campaign literature showed him sitting in the driver's seat of—you guessed it—a bulldozer.