By Bradley Zint
4:13 PM PST, January 19, 2013
The neon letters of Anchor Trailer Port's sign haven't been lit in years.
Word is they don't work anymore. If lit again, though, they wouldn't fully spell out "Trailer Port." On the top line, only the A, I, L, and a smudge of the E, are left.
It's the kind of sign that's been naturally aged by the elements, a throwback to the easy-living California days of the post-war 1940s that, in some ways, still ring true for the folks living in their mobile homes, trailers or RVs at Anchor Trailer Port.
But residents of the Newport Boulevard nook are learning day by day that all good things about Anchor Trailer Port appear to be coming to an end. Plans are surfacing to convert the park to condominiums, and with a tentative final move-out date of Aug. 24, they can't stop the tide of changes.
But in the wake of the decisions and approvals making their way through various administrative channels are residents who say they feel confused, even cheated. The symbolic anchor in the name drags, they say, leaving them shipwrecked in the situation.
Others know the change was inevitable but just want their fair share of moving costs, per diems and such.
The developers say they hear their concerns and are being generous. City staff has chipped in more than 100 hours toward the monumental task as well.
But there are other residents who are more apprehensive, feeling even more uncertainty. Anchor Trailer Port has been their home for years, and after its closure, they don't know where they might next call home.
Hidden in plain sight
The Anchor Trailer Port is at 1527 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, but to find the nearly 1.9-acre park just shy of the Newport Beach-Costa Mesa border, you'd basically have to be looking for it. Its tucked-away nature belies its position on a major thoroughfare that thousands use every day.
It's a home hidden in plain sight, but that just how the residents like it.
They call their 43-space slice of Costa Mesa a secret jewel in which they can afford to live — and to boot, the living is good. They know their neighbors, their neighbors know them, and sometimes they don't feel the urge to lock their doors.
It's safe and friendly, they say. Moreover, it's surprisingly quiet — especially considering it's next to a street called Industrial Way. When there is noise, it's usually from the adjacent storage facility or boat repair yard.
Most of the residences, whether mobile home, trailer or RV, have their own character. Several have tidy, fenced-in gardens. With a stroll down the park's two main byways, it's easy to spot a hammock, mini barbecue and other custom touches.
Anchor Trailer Port's history dates back to the late 1940s, when it opened as a park for recreational vehicles, according to a city report. Through the decades, it became a state-licensed mobile home park where people of all ages can live.
As of earlier this month, the city said 20 spaces have resident-owned homes, nine have park-owned homes and one is occupied by the on-site manager. Thirteen spaces are vacant.
Within its immediate vicinity, the park is the only area used for residential purposes, though officially it has two different zoning designations, general commercial and general business, and even two different labels on the city's general plan: general commercial and light industry.
IntraCorp, a privately held company, is the proposed buyer of the property. Of its six divisions, four are for real estate development, with offices in Seattle, San Francisco and Newport Beach.
The Newport office on MacArthur Boulevard, which handles developments in Southern California and Hawaii, is overseeing the transaction that, as of this week, is still in escrow. It's IntraCorp's first project in Costa Mesa. Some of its other projects, both ongoing and completed, have been in San Diego, Long Beach, Pasadena, Glendale, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Honolulu.
With recent approvals from the City Council and Planning Commission, 40 live-work condominiums are poised to replace the mobile homes, RVs and trailers. Asking prices have not yet been released.
The two- and three-bedroom units are planned to have three floors and be as large as 2,000 square feet. The bottom floors will be open, lofty work spaces; the second floors will have the kitchen, dining and family rooms; the third will have the bedrooms. There will be decks on all the rooftops.
'There's just nothin' out there'
Mike Libby was born in a car on the Balboa Peninsula. With his U.S. Merchant Marine license and decades of experience on the water, he's a captain as well, but his neighbors usually call him "Mouse." He's had the nickname since kindergarten.
Mouse grew up in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, where he graduated from Costa Mesa High School. For a time, his parents ran a bar on Balboa Boulevard. Some years later, the bar became the Shore House Cafe.
For the past 16 years, Mouse has lived in a single-wide mobile home at Anchor Trailer Port. He owns his house and leases the plot, which is close to his work down at the marina.
He likes having his own little carport and little yard. Neighbors claim he's got the best lemon tree around. But that's not all of what he likes about his home.
"I got all my crap in it," he said with a laugh. "These pictures, this stuff that I grew up with."
His tidy rooms are full of memories on paper, photographs of his life, family and friends through the years. He pointed to one of them showing his half-sister next to Elvis Presley.
Those same neighbors who compliment his lemon tree say he's got better interior decorating style than most bachelors.
But when he's forced to move out, he's not sure what's next for him. He said his 1960s-era home is too old and decrepit to be moved. City staff have acknowledged that spaces for mobile homes and similar dwellings are in short supply in Costa Mesa and its environs.
"Dude, I've been to a bunch of parks," he said. "There's just nothin' out there, ya know? I looked at a house for rent over here, called it. It was a little small, one-bedroom thing. Perfect. But they said it was rented out."
He's also having a conflict of definition. He says his home is a single-wide; developers say it's a travel trailer. Their definitions determine some of the relocation benefits he's eligible for.
But he feels better than his neighbor, who he said is "flipping out" over moving because he's got kids in school. Mouse said at least as a single guy, he can move easily.
Mouse described his feeling of the whole process thus far in a word: confused.
"It's in the dark. Christ, they say one thing and do another ... They smile one way and you're going, what does that mean? You don't get anything out of it."
Developer, city perspectives
After two-and-a-half hours of public testimony and discussion, the City Council on Jan. 8 certified that Anchor Trailer Port's closure impact report met the minimum state requirements. The report outlined impacts of the closure, the residents' relocation options and mitigations.
Residents spoke of various problems they had with it: among them, poor or late delivery of public notices, the notices not being written in Spanish for non-English speakers, not wanting to sign a waiver, insufficient relocation funds. Council and city staff listened, made amendments and expressed their own concerns, all while a group from IntraCorp and the Loftin Group, IntraCorp's Carlsbad-based advisory counsel, stood by.
Peter Lauener of IntraCorp's Newport office was there listening and speaking to the council. He's been with the company since 2002.
"We understand that closing a trailer park is a very sensitive process," he said in an interview. "So we've tried to be very sensitive to the residents who live there. The reality is that it's owned by a landowner whose goal is to convert it from what it is to something else, and he's retained us to do that."
He's personally met with Anchor residents, in meetings onsite and offsite, large and small. A survey was also distributed, though not all residents filled it out, Lauener said. The discussions with residents have been going on for about a year. The closure impact report has gone through several drafts as concerns were addressed, he said.
"At the end of every meeting, I get a number of residents coming up to me thanking me and saying we're being extremely fair in how we're treating everyone," Lauener said.
"We want to treat everybody fairly as it relates to their move from their current location to wherever they go," he added. "Whether it be to another mobile home park, to an apartment, to living with relatives, to going out of state. Whatever they're doing, we want to work with each individual and make sure that each individual's specific needs are taken care of in this move."
Lauener's latest meeting with residents took place on Friday. A group of Anchor residents, still upset with the process thus far, filed a petition this week with the city clerk for a review of the Jan. 14 Planning Commission hearing.
Some of them, after talking with Newport Beach city staff, have claimed IntraCorp, and the various names it has used on city documents, doesn't have a business license — an allegation Lauener said simply isn't true.
"I don't think it's an issue at all," he said. "IntraCorp is a family of companies, and we've got a number of business licenses in the city of Newport Beach, and any licenses required in the city of Costa Mesa that we need, we will get … we're not trying to circumvent the system in any way whatsoever."
He said the company has its own "rules to live by, and we've made sure that we've lived up to all the rules that are required. And we've exceeded them in a number of areas."
According to the latest closure impact report available, IntraCorp is offering a variety of relocation options for both renters and homeowners, which include moving, salvaging or buying the structures. Licensed business will do the moving.
Residents who meet certain requirements will also get an extra $5,500; the others will get $2,000.
There will also be a counselor to personally help everyone, though some residents have questioned her qualifications.
Peter Naghavi, Costa Mesa's deputy CEO and economic and development director, echoed Lauener's sentiment that the conversion process is always difficult.
"It's unfortunate that the nature of this kind of movement is always like this," he said.
"We are not going to do anything to hurt our residents," Naghavi added. "Our job is to make sure that we protect our residents by making sure that [the developers] do what they're supposed to do."
Naghavi referred to the 2004 closure of adjoining El Nido and Snug Harbor trailer parks on Newport Boulevard, which together housed more than 100 homes. The area has since been redeveloped with medical office buildings.
Closing those wasn't easy either. According to Daily Pilot archives, residents expressed similar concerns about receiving just compensation, and many didn't have nice words for Joe Brown, owner of the two parks.
There was an effort to have the City Council approve an ordinance granting the city more control over closure and conversion of mobile home parks. The ordinance made it through the Planning Commission stage after a drawn-out process, but failed to get final approval from the council.
As a result, Costa Mesa continues to rely on state law, which, by most accounts is vague.
"It is what it is, and that's our process," Naghavi said. "We can't really force the developer for more than what the state asks."
The City Council or Planning Commission could again try to formulate an ordinance for increased local control for mobile home park closures, but such an action, if it did happen, is very unlikely to affect Anchor Trailer Port.
The memories of the park and its history may remain, however.
Lauener said IntraCorp is planning to "relive the flavor" of the site's history into the condo project. They want to keep with the anchor theme and incorporate historic photographs of the park somehow throughout it.
Among the pictures of IntraCorp's projects in its Newport office, there's a rendering of Anchor Trailer Port's sign in its better days, with all the neon letters intact.
More residents speak
Jill Chase — "no relation to the bank" — has rented a trailer at the park since 2010. It comes with an add-on and fenced-in yard. The setup is perfect for Chase and her cat, Simone.
Chase, a Newport Harbor High School alumna, class of 1978, is living about a mile from where she was born: Hoag Hospital.
Mouse recruited her to live there. She too works in Newport Harbor, where she has her own interior detail service and is a first mate on a 65-foot wooden classic yacht.
Knowing the likely future of Anchor Trailer Port, she's been looking around for apartments, but thinks the low-income housing she needs will be in a less-than-desirable area, especially compared to what she's got now.
"There might be something, but I'm staying optimistic," Chase said. "I'm being realistic as well. I know the area. I was born and raised here."
The park's vicinity to Hoag is very important for Patricia Henderson, a 22-year resident of Anchor Trailer Port. Her doctor is at Hoag, where she's getting cancer treatments.
She said she doesn't want to move unless she has to. "It's my home. It's like anybody with a home," she said.
Susie Ellison, an Estancia High School alumna, has lived at Anchor for 10 years. She's another resident recruited by Mouse to join their community, which, back then, had space rental that was "the best-kept secret around." She paid $375 a month.
When she first moved in, she expressed an interest in making the park's sign glow again, but nothing came of it. Among her possessions is a postcard of the park; it's a black-and-white photo taken in the 1940s, when the Anchor Trailer Port was new.
Ellison just wants to be treated fairly in the move process. She bought her quaint trailer with a "California room" add-on for $12,000. Ellison calls it her "Barbie house." She makes the small spaces work for her.
"I feel you have a better connection with your neighbors here … everybody knows what's going on around here," she said. "If there's a stranger around here, people are alerted."
Not far from Ellison is Michael Quigley. He's a former surfer and retired custodian for Newport-Mesa Unified. He's unmistakable with his surfer style, long gray hair and goatee.
"I keep saying I'm gonna get a haircut, but I don't," he said with a laugh.
He owns his home, which he's upgraded since moving in in 1989. His patio used to have an ocean view until Hoag built its parking lot.
After Ellison called his house the "coolest pad around," Quigley laughed and replied, "It's the dustiest, for sure."
For years, though, he's felt the changes to Anchor Trailer Port were imminent, and nowadays, he's not sure at all where he'll live next.
"There's nowhere to move [my home] to," he said. He suspects he'll take the buyout option.
Jeanne McMahon has a double-wide with two bedrooms. One's for her and the other is for her great-grandchildren and cat, Kamper.
Like Quigley, she's a retired Newport-Mesa Unified employee. She was an instructional aide and taught special education. She still helps out from time to time at booster clubs and sporting events, selling tickets, running the snack bar and whatnot.
That's how Councilman Steve Mensinger and Estancia football booster Chuck Perry know her. Both have reached out to help her find new housing.
"She's just a delightful lady, sweet and kind … I'm doing what I'd be doing for anybody who is a friend," Mensinger said.
McMahon has lived at Anchor Trailer Port multiple times for a total of about 15 years, and until it closes, she's going to continue watering the park's front lawn "for fun." They say she's one of the park's green thumbs.
McMahon has Alzheimer's, but feels fortunate that her doctors at Hoag are close by. Shopping is within walking distance, as is her salon. She doesn't drive anymore.
When asked about her future home, she teared up.
"I don't know. I have no idea … I feel uneasy, scared, although I have many, many friends. God has taken care of me."