The Ride of Their Lives

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 N 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.

Then, in February 1998, the city declared blighted the land beneath Belisles and an adjacent senior citizens' mobile home park. City officials offered the land free of charge to several hotel corporations—the same corporations that have largely funded Broadwater's political career in recent years.

Leo Lambert takes special offense at the notion that his community is blighted.

“I grew up on a farm,” he says, “so I know what blight is. Blight is a mold or a fungus on a plant. You treated that area; you didn't throw out the entire crop. Blight is not living behind a brick wall or having chipped paint.”

Huntington Beach-based realtor Dick Lobin, who has sold homes in Garden Grove for 25 years, agrees. “I don't think those homes are particularly blighted,” he said, adding that similar two-bedroom houses nearby are currently selling for $265,000. “In the past number of years, conditions have improved,” he added. “The number of rentals has gone down, and more owners want to take care of their homes.”

In fact, Verla Lambert estimates that all but six houses in the entire tract have been remodeled at least once, including her own. “In 1992, our particular home got a beautification award,” she said. “Back in 1991, the city came through and offered paint jobs for the homes for free. That's what I thought this letter was about.”

“This letter” was one that came to every one of the Lamberts' neighbors. Verla ignored hers until Manny Ballesteros, her new next-door neighbor, handed her a copy one morning in January. The letter was a notice that the city planned to add the neighborhood to its redevelopment plan.

Ballesteros, who had just moved to Garden Grove from Irvine in December, began organizing his neighbors to stop the city. On May 29, city officials met with those residents at the Lamberts' house. The news was bleak: while nobody would lose their home for at least five years, the city reserved the right to seize the land for the next 30 years.

At the meeting, City Manager George Tindall told residents that Garden Grove's economic future depended on its ability to capture Disneyland-related tourism along Harbor Boulevard. But he also tried to assuage their fears. “Just because we put your properties in the redevelopment plan doesn't mean anything's going to happen,” he said. “There's got to be a developer who has to put the money up; there's got to be a market that says it's feasible. . . . But if we don't have [your properties] in the redevelopment zone, then we can't go out and work with those people.”

Asked why the city's redevelopment plan stated that the Lamberts house and the rest of their neighborhood is “blighted,” Tindall answered with remarkable alacrity. “That's a terrible word,” he said. “I don't like blight; you don't like blight. But that's the thing in state law we have to say. Your house is not blighted,” he continued, pointing at the Lamberts' home. “That's one of the prettiest houses in the whole neighborhood right next door. It's a gorgeous home.”

Kathy Evans, whose mother has lived near the Lamberts for 45 years, was also at the May 29 meeting.

“We don't feel the city has the right to take our homes to build more hotels and to capitalize on our neighborhood to create a third theme park for Anaheim,” she said. Evans is the press spokesperson for the Coalition of Concerned Garden Grove Citizens; Verla Lambert is the president.

“Our dirt is older than the city of Garden Grove,” Verla said, referring to the fact that she and her husband bought their house a year before the neighborhood was officially added to the city in 1957.

“This is the American Dream. I have a nice house, two baths, two small rooms, and I still have a yard to mow,” she said. “They can build their roller coaster right over my head, but I'm not leaving.”

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