Business Owners: Disney Foot Bridge Will Make Customers Walk Away

Pedestrians leaving Disneyland from its eastern gates cross the street toward a restaurants and businesses outside the park. Business owners have raised concerns that the proposed pedestrian bridge would eliminate the need for this source of foot traffic.

A foundational belief behind the mantra that what is good for Disneyland is good for Anaheim is the millions of people who visit each year not only spend their money inside the park but also as they walk the streets around it. 

This foot traffic has been the lifeblood of the restaurants, shops and fast food joints that line Harbor Boulevard across from Disneyland. Yet if Disneyland gets its way, in the coming years many of those potential customers will be walking above these businesses instead of by them.

As part of its pledge to invest $1 billion in the resort area — including the massive ‘Star Wars’ Land project — in exchange for a 45-year moratorium on admission ticket taxes, the megal resort is proposing a pedestrian bridge that would funnel visitors from a new parking structure to a security checkpoint and deliver them directly into the park.

The company says building the seven-story parking structure and moving its transportation hub and security checkpoint off site and behind the strip of businesses will improve traffic congestion and mitigate concerns of a terrorist attack at the park’s eastern gates.

At an Anaheim Planning Commission workshop Monday evening, business owners said while the plan might work for Disneyland, a huge drop-off in foot traffic would destroy their customer base.

“[This plan] will take that away from not only us but the 28 other family-owned and operated businesses,” said Mariam El Haj, whose family owns the International House of Pancakes restaurant across from the park.

A Change in Priorities

As recently as the 1990s, the goal was to enhance the opportunities for businesses along Harbor by capitalizing on foot traffic from Disneyland. The city re-engineered the street to improve the pedestrian experience — widening sidewalks and creating uniform signage that encouraged visitors to patronize the restaurants and shops.

The pedestrian bridge would upend that dynamic, moving the transportation hub to the parking and security complex east of Harbor along Manchester Avenue. Visitors who park at that structure would enter a security screening before crossing the bridge – 64 feet wide – across Harbor Boulevard and into Disneyland. It would also make it easier for visitors traveling along the northbound I-5 freeway to get to the parking structure when they exit the freeway at Disney Way.

bridge

A rendering of a street view of the proposed bridge.

Disney representatives told planning commissioners, who were not slated to take action on the project at Monday’s meeting, that the bridge is necessary to ensure security and accommodate the uptick in visitors.

“We live in a much different world today than we did 15, ten or five years ago. We live in a state of heightened security,” said Dan Hughes, Vice President of Security and Emergency Services, and the former police chief for the city of Fullerton.

Hughes – while declining to go into the details of the security operation – said the new layout gives security staff better visibility to monitor guests for questionable behavior, disperse crowds more quickly, and move any potential threat further from the park itself.

Hughes noted that Disney’s security team includes individuals who have previously worked for the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security.

In response to complaints from business owners, Disney made some revisions to its plan to include wayfinding signs and, to resolve concerns about pedestrian access to Harbor, creating direct access points between businesses on Harbor and Disney’s parking complex.

“By no means is it our intention to make it difficult for any business to have their guests access Disneyland. Obviously it would not be in our best interest to make it more difficult for our guests to get into the park,” said Joe Haupt, a consultant with Spectrum Development Group, which represents Disney.

Although some of the businesses are satisfied with that solution, Jonathan Pink, an attorney for several merchants along Harbor Boulevard, said it is inadequate.

“Disney is taking a public right of way over Harbor Boulevard,” said Pink. “In exchange, they have to give something back to the public as a whole.”

‘Fear of Retaliation’

In addition to concerns about pedestrian access, Pink and other attorneys have brought up concerns that the bridge would block views of their storefront, safety concerns given the proximity of the businesses to the security screening, and the aesthetics of the bridge itself.

Robert “Red” Harbin, executive director of the Harbor Boulevard Merchants Association, said that Monday evening’s workshop was scheduled after months of attempts by him to get information from Disney about the scope of the plan and construction and letters to the city and Planning Commission.

Harbin would not disclose which businesses he represents, saying that many of the small merchants in the Anaheim Resort were reluctant to raise concerns out of “fear of retaliation by Disney or the city.”

“On this block, on any given night there are 10,000 guests staying and sleeping along these hotels. There’s 8,500 people employed on this block and these plans will put people out of work,” Harbin said.

Click to enlarge. The proposed parking and security complex would sit behind a row of businesses along Harbor Boulevard and feed into the entrance of the pedestrian bridge.

Click to enlarge. The proposed parking and security complex would sit behind a row of businesses along Harbor Boulevard and feed into the entrance of the pedestrian bridge.

He said several of the hotel and motel owners whose properties are adjacent to the parking complex are concerned that the bridge would only move the terrorist threats from Disney’s gates to the crowded security checkpoint just a couple feet from their hotel rooms.

“It’s okay to move it off your property but you want to put it within feet of where people are staying? That doesn’t seem consistent with the image and reputation Disney has,” Harbin said.

Beyond the bridge itself, a chief concern is that relocating the security screening will prompt the park to close its eastern gates at some point down the road.

Sharon Frisbie MacDonald, whose family owns the McDonald’s restaurant north of the bridge, said the eastern gates create crucial foot traffic from hotel guests who may leave the park during their stay to eat or return to their hotel rooms to rest.

“Our concern is eventually it will be a crosswalk to nowhere. What we’ve been told is they’re keeping that gate and security over there ‘for now,’” said Frisbie MacDonald.

Although Disney officials have said they do not currently have plans to close the gate, Pink said that without a commitment from Disney to keep the eastern gates open, businesses will continue to oppose major aspects of the bridge project.

“If we don’t have Disney’s commitment, thru a CUP (conditional use permit) or otherwise, then we need ready access onto that bridge from Harbor,” said Pink.

He also demanded the city slow down the process and produce a new Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

“The EIR was created in 1993, amended in 1996. There is a major reality shift that happened five years later on September 11,” said Pink.

Although a public hearing on the project was originally scheduled for January 23, 2017, the hearing is been postponed and has not been rescheduled.

City staff said that they will also give the public 30 days advance notice of any public hearing, instead of the usual 10 day period, given concerns about transparency and the pace of the project.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Robert “Red” Harbin as an attorney. Harbin is the executive director of the Harbor Boulevard Merchants Association, and the association’s attorney is Jonathan Pink. 

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.