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California and the West

Disney Gets Option on Farm Site in Anaheim

Development: 52-acre parcel is area's last large agricultural tract. Family had steadfastly refused for years to sell to the entertainment giant.

August 16, 1998|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Walt Disney Co. announced Saturday that it has acquired an option to buy the last large undeveloped site in the resort district of Anaheim, a 52.5-acre strawberry farm that the Fujishige family had refused to sell for decades.

The property, which could be used for a third Disney theme park or a cluster of restaurants and nightclubs, is one of the most valuable in Orange County. Several real estate experts speculated that the land will cost Disney between $65 million and $78 million.

The site is part of the Fujishiges' 56-acre farm on Harbor Boulevard, one block from a second Disney theme park now under construction, Disney's California Adventure.

The Fujishige family had steadfastly refused multimillion-dollar offers from the entertainment giant and other developers, to the admiration and wonder of many members of the community. About a decade ago, the family turned down a $54-million offer from Disney, former Disneyland President Jack Lindquist said Saturday.

A family spokesman, who declined to be identified, said patriarch Hiroshi Fujishige is pleased with the agreement. The family will continue to farm on 3.5 acres of the property and Fujishige plans to keep his produce stand at Harbor Boulevard and Convention Way.

The agreement is the culmination of years of work by Disney, and was greeted with elation by several Anaheim city and tourism officials.

"This absolutely is going to add to the value of our destination and helps secure a favorable future for us," said Ned Snavely, general manager of the Anaheim Marriott Hotel.

In 1993, Disney earmarked the site for a possible theme park as part of its expansion and included it in an environmental impact report. The presumption angered the Fujishiges, who hired an attorney and threatened to sue. Disney removed the site from its plans.

But the futures of the two entities, the small, proud family and the Disney juggernaut, remained intertwined.

In spite of the 1993 run-in with Disney, Hiroshi Fujishige earlier had said he would consider selling the farm someday.

"I could see where I may have to move, maybe in three, four or five years," he told The Times in 1991. But he added: "I'm happy doing what I'm doing, that's all I know."

Why the family decided to sell now remains unclear.

"We're really trying to keep this as low-key as we can," said one of Fujishige's daughters, who wouldn't identify herself. Other family members declined comment.

Paul Pressler, president of the Disneyland Resort, said he "has a great deal of respect for the Fujishige family and their persistence in maintaining the tradition of family farming."

The Burbank-based company has no immediate plans to build on the site, Pressler said, but he called the acquisition a "prudent course of action" in light of Disney's expansion plans.

The company is building the Disneyland Resort, which includes a 750-room hotel, shops, restaurants and a retail center. It will include Disney's California Adventure, scheduled to open in 2001.

Although a third theme park is possible, some observers say the land more likely will be used to bring to California the concept of the Florida Paradise Island, a cluster of nightclubs and restaurants near Walt Disney World.

Such a plan, they said, would work well in a city that has launched a costly expansion of its convention center and a number of new hotels and is changing faster than any city in Orange County.

"I expect they would immediately incorporate that land into their overall planning and have its uses ready when California Adventure opens," said Michael Meyer, managing partner of E&Y Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group in Newport Beach.

Others agreed that it would be unlikely that a third park would be built so soon after a new park opening.

"In my mind, a California version of Pleasure Island would happen faster than a third park," said Lindquist, the former Disneyland president. "To me, that doesn't make any sense and would be contrary to everything Disneyland has done in the theme park business--to really get specific about a third park when a second one is only 30 months away from opening."

Either way, news of the sale was greeted enthusiastically by some city officials.

"It's exciting news to know Disney has been able to reach an agreement with the family at last," said City Councilwoman Shirley McCracken. "I see that parcel as a vital part of Anaheim's resort complex--it's just too valuable to stay as agricultural land."

When Hiroshi Fujishige and his brother Masao bought the land in 1954, it was surrounded by orange groves and eucalyptus. Nearby, Richard Nixon's brother, Donald, operated a hamburger stand.

Now the farm is a charming anachronism, bordered by high-rise hotels, souvenir shops and tourist amenities.

In 1986, Masao, in failing health, committed suicide. His brother appeared at an Anaheim City Council meeting and said that although outside pressure to sell the farm had been a factor, the council members should not feel guilty.

"I have no bad feelings for any of you," he said. "He was a sick man. The only trouble was, I didn't realize how sick he was."

Today, the property is zoned for resort use but not a theme park. That means that Disney probably would have to undergo an environmental impact review process if it wanted to build a third park, Mayor Tom Daily said.

"Disney probably will have to do substantial additional environmental analysis," Daley said. "An EIR was done for the entire area and the property is entitled for features such as hotels and restaurants. But it's not yet entitled for a theme park."

But, he said, "whenever the largest employer in an area decides to continue investing, that's good news."

Staff writers Daryl Strickland and Liz Seymour contributed to this story.

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