Santa Ana city leaders are openly considering transforming the 100-acre Willowick Golf Course into something like a mini-Central Park in the heart of Orange County.
Ideas floated by city leaders include a native habitat trail, sports fields and even cultural and entertainment venues. It's an alluring proposal to city officials for many reasons, not the least of which being the potential to completely turnaround the city's park-poor reputation.
It could also be a game changer in other ways. City officials expect a streetcar line to be up and running in 2019 with a stop at Willowick, and that means whatever is developed at the golf course would be connected to the downtown's collection of hipster restaurants, artist spaces and hangout spots.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez at this week's council development and transportation committee envisioned an assortment of venues to go with the new open space at Willowick, such as indoor and outdoor sports arenas and an amphitheater. Throw in the streetcar connection downtown and Santa Ana could have an urban assembly Martinez described as an entertainment and cultural village.
“I think we can do a lot of great things... there’s a lot of opportunity,” Martinez said.
But a lot has to happen before any of these big ideas can come to fruition.
First off, the city would have to buy the golf course from Garden Grove. And as Santa Ana City Councilman Vincent Sarmiento pointed out recently, getting all the politicians on the Santa Ana and Garden Grove city councils to agree on the same vision could prove challenging.
It’s also not the first time Santa Ana leaders have talked about doing something different with the golf course. In fact, city officials have been fiddling with new development ideas at Willowick for the past decade, Sarmiento said. At one point, Mayor Miguel Pulido tried turning it into a professional soccer stadium. That never panned out.
“This one has always been a very difficult nut to crack,” Sarmiento said at the committee meeting this week.
There’s also the potentially hefty price tag. Garden Grove Assistant City Manager Kingsley Okereke told the Orange County Register that the value of the land is in the neighborhood of $200 million.
Of course, closing the golf course will likely generate blowback. Willowick is known as the oldest golf course in the county – built in the late 1920s – and its patrons are already voicing opposition.
There’s also the long-simmering gentrification battle. Working-class Latinos who live in central Santa Ana have long feared being priced out by new developments that bring in young professionals with higher incomes. Residents of the Santa Anita neighborhood, which is adjacent to Willowick, have strongly opposed the streetcar.
For now, committee members said they want to focus on having the city manager sit down with Garden Grove officials for talks about what can be done with the property. Like the streetcar, which begins (or ends) in Garden Grove, Sarmiento said he thinks the two cities could come to terms over a new vision for Willowick.
But, Sarmiento hedged, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.