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Disneyland plan for long-term major development in Anaheim clears crucial hurdle

Disney officials cleared one of the final hurdles Monday for its theme park expansion plan, which they say would jump-start at least $1.9 billion of new development at the Anaheim resort over the next 10 years.

The DisneylandForward project was approved Monday night on a 5-1 vote by the Anaheim Planning Commission after almost three years of reviews and analysis. The project next will go before the City Council.

"I want to thank each and every person who came tonight to speak their minds, whether you agreed, disagreed or were neutral," said commission Chairperson Lucille Kring. "I want to thank Disney for bringing this to us. Make us proud."

“Together we are unequivocally making history, just like Walt Disney did almost 70 years ago with the city of Anaheim and Disneyland,” Ken Potrock, president of the Disneyland Resort, said at the meeting before the vote. “It’s a tremendous responsibility for all of us and a privilege to be a steward of this vision for this very, very special place."

The requested changes to the park's zoning would allow Disney — a dominant figure in Anaheim politics — more flexibility to reimagine its existing 490-acre footprint in Anaheim over the next few decades, mixing new attractions, theme parks, shops, restaurants and parking to "provide for continued, long-term growth of The Disneyland Resort," the latest city report said.

Dozens of disgruntled Anaheim residents and Disneyland fans alike attended the meeting to voice their opinions about the proposal.

John Noteboom, an Anaheim resident for 27 years, lives on the western edge of the Disneyland Resort with his wife.

"As some of the closest neighbors to the proposed theme park district of Disneyland on the west side of the park," he said, "we've had nothing but cooperation from Disney anytime an issue has come up."

However, not all the comments from residents were positive.

Jeanine Robbins, who has lived in Anaheim about half a mile from Disneyland for 33 years, brought up a class-action lawsuit that was filed against Walt Disney Co. last week, alleging that Disney underpaid hotel maintenance workers.

“When they can take care of their existing employees, then they can come back with this ridiculous proposal," she said. “If you pay your employees so little that they require food stamps and rent assistance and homeless shelter beds, then you are not a job creator. You are simply a moocher on the public dime."

Margaret Patino, who has lived near Disneyland for 45 years, raised concerns over Magic Way, a street near the resort, being privatized for the potential project.

“Restricting the foot traffic on Magic Way for only Disney guests who will have their keycards is unfair,” she said. “Neighboring hotels, motels will not have access, leaving the surrounding residents to deal with increased traffic on Ball [Road], Katella [Avenue] and losing the access to the 5 Freeway.”

Anaheim officials approved plans during the 1990s that led to the growth of Disneyland Resort in the newly formed Anaheim Resort area, according to the DisneylandForward website.

"And while those plans resulted in major improvements to the entire Anaheim Resort," the site says, "their 'traditional' district/zone approach does not allow for the diverse, integrated experiences theme park visitors now seek, severely limiting Disney’s ability to continue investing in Anaheim."

The project doesn't include specific plans for new attractions, but Disney officials have offered a vision for possible additions, such as immersive Frozen, Zootopia, Tron or Peter Pan experiences similar to those at Disney's locations in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The project promises a minimum $1.9-billion investment in the theme park, lodging, entertainment, shopping and dining within a decade, according to city officials.

Read more: Disneyland's new vision includes up to $2.5-billion investment and a plan to take over city streets

The city of Anaheim's staff report on the project recommended the Planning Commission's approval. The proposal now requires final approval from the City Council, likely in mid-April. Even though the new zoning has been approved, individual projects are still subject to city planning approval.

The proposal outlines an increase of 4,376 theme-park-related parking spaces, as well as a variety of traffic improvements, including adding bike lanes and pedestrian bridges and absorbing some local roadways into Disney's oversight.

The expected development by Anaheim's largest employer would generate significantly more economic output and tax revenue, according to an analysis commissioned by the Walt Disney Co. The new agreement, if approved, would also have Disney pony up $30 million for affordable housing within five years, $40 million for street and transportation improvements and $10 million for sewer upgrades.

"The DisneylandForward Project is expected to generate additional revenue to the city that will increase the city’s general fund to be used for a wide variety of public benefits, including funding police and fire personnel and resources, local school districts, parks, libraries, and capital improvements," according to the city's staff report.

Read more: Disneyland says renovation plans could bring $253 million annually to Anaheim's economy

The project's environmental impact report found that the construction phase would have significant, unavoidable effects on noise pollution, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions in the surrounding community, but Disney officials cited mitigation measures, including installing 12-foot-tall noise barriers.

Many nearby residents and businesses have expressed concerns throughout the lengthy review process about noise, traffic, increased crime or pollution — but there was also much support for the project at a city workshop last month.

Some have also called on Disney to invest more in the community, given the scale of this project and how many of the company's low-wage workers struggle to make ends meet.

Duane Roberts, the editor and publisher of website Anaheim Investigator, pointed to the massive Walt Disney Co.-funded 1,400 unit affordable housing project near Disney World in Central Florida, calling the promised $30 million for affordable housing in Anaheim "puny." He said he wasn't necessarily opposed to the DisneylandForward project, but wanted city officials to push for more local support from Disney.

“Why are we getting so little as compared to Florida?" Roberts asked city officials last month. "Do we not, like them, have a housing crisis in this state?”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.