Sunkist Plaza — off Ball Road near the 57 freeway — has been home to some immigrant-owned small businesses in Anaheim who have survived the pandemic, but those shopkeepers are being forced to move to make way for a new car wash and 24 hour 7-11 gas station.
Critics — including some Anaheim City Council members and planning commissioners — have said the project isn’t needed and unfairly displaces existing business owners, while some proponents said it’s not the city’s place to interfere in the real estate market.
Now the business owners who have been there for decades and some who are Anaheim residents have no idea what will become of their businesses.
“Even if we have no choice just to leave, people need to know what happened here because we have a lot of years in this business. It’s been the same tenants for many years,” Rosalinda Viveros, who has owned New Look Beauty Salon for 17 years, said in an interview.
“At this point, we don’t know what to do, because we know we have to go, but we don’t know where or when.”
Shira Zaghi, property manager for the plaza, has not responded to questions from Voice of OC.
For the tenants, relocating their business means having to start from scratch after pouring years of time and money into their shops at Sunkist Plaza.
Esther Kang, Korean owner of Ace Flower Shop, doesn’t want to move either, but if she gets money to relocate she will continue her business elsewhere. Kang came to the plaza in 1997 and is one of the longest tenants there. The Anaheim resident lives five minutes away from her shop.
“This place — the rent is low. That’s why I keep going for 23 years,” she said in an interview.
“My life is here.”
Anaheim Planning Commissioner Steve White criticized the project as unnecessary.
“The bottom line is there’s seven small businesses being put out of business and it’s strongly supported by the Chamber of Commerce who is supposed to support small businesses,” White said in an interview.
“They’re not local people and the profit and the benefit is all going to a West LA developer.”
White said that a couple of years ago a developer from Los Angeles pitched the idea of taking down the plaza to make room for a car wash and gas station, which received a lot of opposition at a meeting held by the developer at the Sunkist Public Library in 2019.
“There were 150 people who attended, unanimously opposed to the project. Every single one of them, mainly because there’s no need. There’s a gas station on the other corner. There’s a carwash half mile down the street and within here, there’s seven car washes within two miles. We don’t need more,” White said.
Miguel Gonzalez, owner of Melchor Bakery, said the city and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce largely ignored businesses in the plaza.
“We felt that everything we did in 17 years is gone in a few months,” he said in Spanish during an interview about the plaza. “It’s not easy to put up a bakery because it is expensive. Just to move costs a lot of money and to establish another bakery will cost a lot of money.”
Gonzalez said he’s been a baker for 45 years and lives near the plaza. He also said he is one of the first Latinos to open a business at Sunkist.
Unlike some of the other tenants in the plaza, Gonzalez has found a spot in Stanton to relocate his business there but it will take time to get the new bakery up and running.
The Jagerhaus — perhaps one of the most famous businesses in the plaza — is also moving to a spot near city hall.
Meanwhile, the city council and the planning commission have supported the project even though some local officials have spoken out against it.
The project passed the planning commission on April 12 with 3-2-2 vote with White and Kimberly Keys dissenting, while Commissioners Lucille Kring and Luis Andres Perez abstained.
Kring is a former city council member who termed out last year.
On June 8, the council heard an appeal submitted by resident Vern Nelson on the project who criticized the proposed gas station and car wash as creating more traffic, more noise and destroying the businesses in the plaza.
He also criticized the developer for hiring lobbyist Jeff Flint.
“This is not how we’re representative government is supposed to work. You’re a council, not a paid off rubber stamp,” said Nelson at the meeting. “It’s up to the Planning Commission and the council to ask yourselves whose interests do you work for, the LA speculator or Anaheim’s residents and businesses.”
Residents who live near the plaza also raised concerns about the project.
“There are plenty of other car washes I don’t need this one. The businesses that are there right now I do go to and I do like, and I’m really sad to see small businesses being forced out by big corporations that really don’t add anything to the neighborhood,” said resident Irene Murphy at the meeting.
Despite the concerns, the council decided to deny the appeal and allow the developer to go forward with the project with a 4-3 vote. Councilmembers Jose Moreno, Stephen Faessel and Avelino Valencia dissented.
Moreno questioned Zaghi on why she needed to hire Flint.
“The only reason why we decided to hire that political consultant was because we had a hard time understanding Anaheim politics,” Zaghi responded, adding that Flint gave them the idea to host a virtual town hall about the project.
Moreno said he told Zaghi already that it was important to hear from the community before she hired a consultant and asked her who told her to reach out to Flint.
“I don’t understand why that’s a pertinent question honestly,” Zaghi said.
Councilman Trevor O’Neil defended Zaghi for hiring Flint and said she was the target of politically motivated attacks.
He also defended the project saying it retains the plaza’s commercial use and tenants are on a monthly lease with no guarantee of staying.
“It’s frankly not the council’s role to interfere in the landlord-tenant process,” O’Neil said. “For me, it’s not enough to just hear, we don’t want it, the community doesn’t need it. In order to deny a project, I really need evidence that it’s truly not a compatible use.”
At the meeting, Zaghi also said the business owners are on monthly leases.
“That means that there’s really no obligation, no obligation from us to them and no obligation from them to us,” she said.
She said they’ve helped business owners to the tune of $350,000 by not raising fees and missed rent that has not been paid by some of the tenants while the developers themselves have struggled during the pandemic and they themselves are an immigrant owned business.
Business Owners Left in Limbo
Elias Moussa, Syrian American owner of His Nibs liquor store and Anaheim resident, said relocating comes at a hefty price.
Moussa, a dialysis patient, told Anaheim officials at the meeting that if he loses his business he will become homeless and argues that he still has a 15 year lease.
“If we’re going to look at what the city councilmen and the mayor have done in 2021, are we going to say wow, they brought another 7-11 to Anaheim. Is that an accomplishment?” He questioned.
At a city council meeting in July, he criticized city officials.
“I told them I ran away from a dictator in Syria, I come to Anaheim and I find worse dictators here,” Moussa said about his comments in an interview.
At the June 8 meeting, Viveros asked the city if they have resources to help them relocate.
“Because if not, I don’t know what’s going to happen with all of us,” she said.
In an interview, White and Viveros said the property manager told business owners she would do everything she can to help relocate them, but most have not found new locations.
Some business owners have not paid the rent.
During the pandemic, Viveros worked side jobs to pay the rent but got a concussion and later broke her ribs which was part of the reason she stopped paying rent.
White said the business owners are hopeful of getting an answer in court, although no legal claims have been filed by the developer so far.
“They want to be able to explain what happened,” White said.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.