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Residents Hope to Save Last Orange Grove

Preservation: Parcel in Anaheim isn't for sale, but activists are lobbying the city to protect the symbol of a bygone era anyway.

April 24, 2001|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Past Disneyland, past the long stretch of resort hotels on Harbor Boulevard, past the new Anaheim--the Anaheim of tomorrow--sits the last agricultural vestige of the original Anaheim colony: an orange grove.

This two-acre stretch of green in downtown Anaheim is the last working orange grove in a city where once there were acres upon acres of orchards. It is not for sale, at least for now. But many Anaheim residents are lobbying city officials to help them preserve the grove.

A lot next to the grove was recently sold, prompting fear that an office building or apartments will soon border the orange trees. To prevent that, local history buffs are urging the City Council to buy the lot and come up with a plan for the orange grove.

They envision an educational site and a park dedicated to Anaheim's agricultural history. A park where city children can pick the oranges and see farm equipment up close.

"I believe all things are possible, especially when you're talking about preserving history," said Gail Eastman, secretary of the Anaheim Historical Society. "This is an important part of Anaheim's history that needs to be preserved."

It's all part of what residents call a historical renaissance in downtown Anaheim.

This month, the city began installing monuments that mark the boundaries of the original Anaheim colony at North, South, East and West streets. The Redevelopment Agency recently bought Anaheim's last citrus packing plant, a few blocks from the remaining orange grove. They hope to turn that into a museum, restaurant or some combination. And residents have surveyed and registered hundreds of old homes in the area.

Park officials reported to the City Council on the issue last week, saying that the land is most valuable if the orange grove and empty lot can be combined.

But the city is still a long way from a decision.

The community services department is preparing a second report for the council that seeks to answer some questions:

* Who is buying the empty lot, currently in escrow, and would they sell the property?

* Do members of the Pressel family, the longtime owners of the grove, intend to maintain the orange trees, or do they want to sell?

* If the Pressels and the lot owner decide to sell, where would

the city find the estimated $1.9 million to buy them?

Ed Pressel, 78, whose grandfather settled in Anaheim more than 100 years ago, said he plans to keep the oranges, at least for now.

But he said he would consider selling "if somebody made an offer you couldn't refuse."

Talk like that worries preservationists. They don't want to see the trees bulldozed. Many residents are still bitter about the city's "bulldozer years" in the 1970s and 1980s, when many historic buildings were destroyed downtown to make way for development.

Pressel is open to offers, but also says he wants to give the grove to his son. And even though the grove has lost money for at least 10 years, the Pressels continue to nurture the trees. They pay to disc the ground and irrigate. If a tree dies, they replace it, even though the grove is almost more work than it's worth.

Pressel remembers the days when Anaheim was once covered with orange trees. At the peak in 1944, there were 64,681 acres of oranges in Orange County. By 1999, that had dwindled to 188 acres.

Jim Collison, 39, chairman of the California Square Neighborhood Assn., which is spearheading the preservation effort, remembers those orange groves too. Now, he said, "it's almost all completely gone."

"I think it would be surprising to many younger kids to realize that all this stuff here right now wasn't here 20 or 30 years ago," Collison said. "It's very, very different. There's just something neat about having agriculture and open space as a keepsake for the future."

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