The Greenlaw-Sidhu Townhomes Faceplant; What Now for Ball & Anaheim Blvd?

Just in case any of you central Anaheim folks are wondering what the hell is happening on the southeast corner of Ball and Anaheim Blvd, we can report that the deal your city made in November with Greenlaw Partners, who’d been all set to build 223 for-sale townhomes there (10% of them “affordable” to those who make around $90K a year) – that deal has FACEPLANTED. Which is a colloquialism drawn from soccer and skateboarding signifying, it has “failed most egregiously.” I.E. it is kaput.

The deadline to “make escrow” was Dec 30, and that deadline was missed, and the excuses for that failure are as manifold as they ever are when an issue is mired in controversy. But city leadership assures me that, as they put the project back out to bid, now under the restrictions of the state’s “Surplus Land Act,” they will do their best to make sure the area is not such a blight – that it is at least clean and safe. And the ART resort buses will continue to be stored in the back end of the space.

I wrote about this very shady deal back in early November, when Council rushed it through suspiciously at the last minute before elections and with as little publicity as possible. This morning I see that, as I was laboring on this piece, The Voice of OC‘s Hosam Elattar just published his own article about it. It’s unclear WHY at first, as Hosam doesn’t seem to realize the deal is dead, and at first glance it just looks like a report on a meeting that happened ten weeks ago. BUT Hosam does contribute the figures on how much the councilmembers were PAID by the developer right around the time of their November votes! THAT’S it – those reports must have just come out. So, thank you for that, Hosam.

So, where to start? Wallace Stevens wrote a beautiful 13-part poem in 1954 entitled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” There are possibly 13 ways of looking at this scuttled development – what it tells us about Anaheim’s past, present and future – maybe more than 13 ways. Let us begin…

No longer.

First – Why do we call it the “Greenlaw-Sidhu Townhomes?”

Rob Mitchell’s Greenlaw Partners, an Irvine-based developer, is among the more prolific contributors to Anaheim politicians, particularly our disgraced, resigned Mayor Harry Sidhu. We expected, as this deal was rushed through, for most of the Council to ALSO receive Mitchell/Greenlaw largesse, and as Hosam showed us today they DID, but still the name Sidhu has become understandable shorthand for pay-to-play corruption.

Greenlaw is also the LANDLORD owning the building that houses our disgraced Chamber of Commerce (till recently run by convicted felon Todd Ament), Visit Anaheim, and (until the FBI reveleations) Core Strategic, the lobbying firm of JEFF FLINT, who was also Greenlaw’s lobbyist until HIS criminality put him out of the game. Greenlaw’s donations to Sidhu are part of Judge Clay Smith’s investigations into the City of Anaheim. ONE CAN SAY WITH NO EXAGGERATION THAT GREENLAW IS PART OF THE CABAL.

The view from the corner, with shuttered ex-car dealership.

And DOES Greenlaw get special treatment? OH MY. I’m told they have “exclusive rights to build and develop condos and apartments on city-owned property.” (Which this huge, central parcel is, city-owned.) On this PARTICULAR project, they’d first agreed before the Planning Commission to make 15% of the townhomes “affordable,” but then at some point on their way to see the Council they did some quick math and figured it’d be better for their profits if they changed that to TEN percent. Nobody batted an eye.

And what they count as “affordable” is an abuse of the language – they mean “moderate income” which is calculated in this town to be $70-90K. Planning Commissioner White tells me this “city-owned property was designated for low-income in the housing element.” Furthermore, Greenlaw got away with making this a non-union project, saving themselves money but breaking the rules for city-owned land.

And Council rushed it through right in the middle of an election. It was as little publicized as legally possible, and the Council approved it 4-2 one week before Election Day – it seems, both to escape scrutiny and also to not worry about a future council that might be less pliant. But turns out there’s another, third factor – avoiding California’s Surplus Land Act (which also mucked up the Stadium Swindle.) Greenlaw’s project, before faceplanting, was not subject to the strictures of this act, but anything going forward WILL be, and THAT means, among other things, putting the property OUT TO BID, and REALLY having FIFTEEN percent of it being LOW-INCOME HOUSING.

  • Voting no on Council, and looking good, were Jose Moreno and Avelino.
  • Voting yes, and looking bad, were Steve Faessel and Jose Diaz, not up for re-election.
  • ALSO voting yes ONE WEEK BEFORE ELECTION DAY were Trevor and Gloria, who were deservingly voted out of office.

As my anonymous pajarita (or informant) summarized, “It’s SO DIRTY.”

I should hasten to add: Anaheim’s city spokesman found it worthwhile to call me, surprisingly late on Friday night – no complaint, I’m always delighted to hear Mike Lyster‘s lilting voice – to let me know, before I write, that I am wrong about a lot of things. First of all, “we staff don’t go around making our decisions based on who contributes what campaign money.” Well, sure – nobody really thought it happened exactly like that. It’s the council, who get that money, and make those decisions – but the staff is perfectly well aware of what the council and Mayor want, and especially what Jeff Flint wanted.

Lyster CONFIRMED that Greenlaw unilaterally changed their 15% affordable to 10% affordable, (which was interesting, because someone ELSE in the Planning Department tried to tell me that it happened the OPPOSITE way – from 10 to 15.) And that was to make the project more profitable, or as they would probably put it, not so much of a loss.

And Lyster disputed that Greenlaw has any “exclusive rights to build on city property,” pointing out that affordable-housing companies like Jamboree have built on city property. I think I probably misspoke, and that what I’d heard is correct: That Greenlaw has exclusive rights to build CONDOS AND APARTMENTS, and PROFIT, off of city-owned property.

Lyster also told me that even though Greenlaw is no longer in the Ball/Anaheim game, one thing does remain of the deal – the approved entitlements, or zoning changes. I.E. the next applicant will be pre-approved to build 223 for-sale townhomes, along with “mixed-use” i.e. a business or two. But apparently it will have to have a lot more affordable. And how much of this could the new Council change if it wants to? Many questions remain.

But first, why did the project fail? Why did escrow not close by Dec. 30? Why are we here now with (nearly) a clean slate?

Theories of the Faceplant.

Apparently even a deep-pocketed developer like Greenlaw has to work with a “funder,” and it seems undisputed that this funder developed a case of “cold feet” about the project. City Spokesman Lyster blames those frigid tootsies on high interest rates and other factors in the current economy inhospitable to such housing developments.

But other insiders tell me that investigators have been “sniffing around” this questionable deal, and in the wake of last year’s FBI bombshells, well … a poor developer simply trying to conduct “business as usual” doesn’t really feel like being overly scrutinized. And THIS brings up a good question…

Did Vern and Donna of Anna Drive (the present author and his wife) kill the Greenlaw-Sidhu Project? This does seem entirely possible. After the FBI desmadre, the Council hired an investigative team, headed up by Judge Clay Smith, to root out any corruption in the city, and those investigators seem to be doing their job more zealously and thoroughly than the Council perhaps expected!

Last month we met with two of these investigators at their request, and had a nice 2-3 hour recorded conversation. One of the investigators, like Donna, had grown up within less than a mile of this development, and he and Donna reminisced for a while about how it used to be, and lamented the recent “gentrification.”

Later, shortly before we left, they asked us if we could think of any Council action we’d seen, besides the Stadium Swindle, that could possibly be considered a quid-pro-quo. And I told them that’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but the first thing that comes to mind since it’s most recent is this Greenlaw deal at Ball and Anaheim. It seemed like they hadn’t heard about that. So when I got home I sent them a link to my November story.

And a couple weeks later we hear “investigators have been poking around,” and then the funders “get cold feet” and the deal falls through? Well, all I can say is, once again, You’re welcome, Anaheim!

A Developers’ Town, a Developers’ Council.

Yes, we call the failed project the “Greenlaw-Sidhu” Townhomes because the name Sidhu has become a public signifier for pay-to-play corruption, but really Mayor Sidhu was just one of half-a-dozen paid-off councilmembers, one who got to rise to the top of the barrel for a few years and was particularly arrogant and reckless.

And yes, we are enjoying writing about this Greenlaw-Sidhu Townhomes project because it was uniquely shameless, and because it failed. But it is also one of dozens such outrages pushed through in Anaheim this decade.

The pre-Sidhu cabal was most notorious for its extravagant luxury hotel subsidies, and for giving Disney anything it craved. The Sidhu years are most notorious for the failed Angel Stadium giveaway. But what I remember seeing the most frequently during the Sidhu years was Council signing away, nearly once a month, yet another parcel of land to a voracious (and campaign-generous) developer bent on maximizing their profit and providing as little affordable housing as possible.

Anaheim needs a lot more affordable housing – I don’t need to make that case here, do I? Working people are homeless, living in their cars, spending the majority of their paychecks just to stay in the town where they work, or living in the faroff 909 and commuting for hours.

The state of California has created affordable housing mandates for each city, and we are doing worse than nearly any other OC city at following those mandates. (I’ll have some charts and figures ready soon if you insist.) Santa Ana is running circles around us. Irvine has required 15% affordable on every new development, and they are getting ready to raise that to 20%.

Instead, our Councils have traditionally let friendly developers do whatever they want, which, of course, is to make as much money off their investments as they can. The result, particularly up and down Anaheim Blvd lately, is what’s called GENTRIFICATION. Some think that’s a good thing. But not the locals, the folks who love their neighborhoods and culture. The area might look prettier and safer (arguably.) Meanwhile prices go up, rents go up. And eventually the working-class locals have to move to places like Corona or become homeless.

And, traditionally, our overlords don’t see a problem there.

The Moment.

The failure or faceplant of the Greenlaw-Sidhu Townhome Project comes at an interesting moment, right when a new Council and Mayor take office. Right as a new Councilmember for District 4 (where this project is located) is about to get appointed. And right as Steve Faessel inaugurates the latest iteration of his “Affordable Housing Council Working Group.” Here he is at the last meeting, proposing the working group and inviting Mayor Ashleigh and Natalie R to join him on it:

It’s nice that Steve is THINKING about affordable housing, as an important thing, but if this is anything like the last two AH working groups he was on, their only trick was to get some modest fees from each developer of each development, to go into some vague money-pool that will eventually build AH somewhere in the city. And this is still the only idea he mentioned in the above video. A lot more will be needed. I think it was a good sign that Natalie insisted the work of the Housing and Community Development Commission be consulted and included – that is the Commission chaired by the very serious and constructive Tim Houchen.

What should we suggest or demand at tomorrow’s Council meeting? And what constructive ideas may come from possible applicants to the District 4 Council appointment?

My good friend Fred Sigala Jr, as he expresses in a more lengthy comment below, thinks it’s a pointless diversion for there to be a segment of the Council going through the motions of an “affordable housing working group,” when all that’s really necessary is for the Council at large to FOLLOW STATE LAWS!

And Planning Commissioner Steve White proposes a formula going forward, a formula to impose on ANYBODY wanting to build on City property from now on. And it is not a new idea, it’s a formula that worked for decades during the Redevelopment Era. The developer would have to choose between providing either:

  • 25% of their project for moderate income;
  • 20% for LOW income, or
  • 15% for VERY LOW INCOME.

Well, whaddaya think? Let’s get to work. Vern out.

Desolation Blvd, just south of Anaheim and Ball.

*********************

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

BY WALLACE STEVENS

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

II
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

IV
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

V
I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

VI
Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   

VII
O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   

VIII
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   

X
At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   

XI
He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   

XII
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.