The fate of an Anaheim shopping center and the future of its tenants swings in the balance this afternoon. The city's planning commission is holding a public hearing at 5 p.m. to decide on moving forward with a proposal that would level businesses on the corner of La Palma and Magnolia avenues in favor of a future McDonald's, Rite Aid Pharmacy and retail space. The center is home to longtime and legendary Anaheim establishments like El Patio Drive In and the Glo-Room. If the planning commission approves the proposal by Frontier Real Estate Investments, they'll be crushing the hard work of immigrant entrepreneurship from El Salvador to Vietnam along with it.
Emma Hagan fled El Salvador in 1984 at the height of the Central American country's bloody civil war. When she arrived to the United States she started working as a cook at El Patio, a Mexican food joint that's been around since 1977.
"She and my stepfather got the opportunity to purchase the restaurant in 1988 and she's been with it ever since," says Douglas Molina, vice president of El Patio and Hagan's son. But in March of last year, El Patio's lease expired, going month-to-month under property owner Kathy Watson. Little did they know it was a precursor to a redevelopment plan that didn't include them.
"We found out about the project from the city of Anaheim. We had no idea what was going on," says Molina, whose mother is currently in El Salvador visiting a sick relative. He received a letter late last month about a public hearing on demolition plans. Molina spread the word to the other tenants. His mother found the news deeply upsetting. "It's everything she worked for her whole life."
El Patio's been more packed than usual with a tremendous community response since patrons new and old learned of its uncertain future. The petition roll they started is pages long, with hundreds of signatures. "It's a community staple," says Molina. "Whether you ate a burrito 25 years ago or yesterday, it's been the same!"
Across from El Patio, the mood inside the Glo-Room is full of gloom. Owner Rosie Tran faithfully opens the place up every day before the neighborhood bar gets going around noon. She came to the United States from Vietnam in 1975, the same year Saigon fell. Tran took out a second mortgage on her home that she still makes payments on to purchase the working-class watering hole from its previous owner more than 20 years ago.
"To tell you the truth, I'm still sick about it," she says of the proposed demolition. "I asked to sign a lease," Trans recalls when her last five-year one expired. "They tell me I didn't have to sign a [new] lease because they look at me like family. Now they turn around and don't even call me to give me a year to prepare for this."
Like El Patio, Glo-Room goers have been signing a petition opposed to the project. Machi the bartender looks at the photo collage wall-of-fame by the dive bar's restrooms with nostalgia. "If I start talking about this place closing, it makes me want to cry," she says. A white-whiskered man reminisces between swigs of his bottled brew about coming to the bar since the 1970's. He senses the end of an era is near and he's not alone.
"It's the only thing I have," Tran said of her establishment, sobbing. If the Glo-Room gets bulldozed she has no plans to relocate. "Honey, I'm 66 years old and I don't have any money." Molina, Tran and other tenants are going to present their petitions and express their thoughts at this afternoon's planning commission meeting where members can move to approve.
"When they go behind your back with a new plan to build, what else can you do?" Tran asks. "I feel betrayed."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2