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The Garden Grove and Santa Ana City Councils jointly approved development of the Willowick Golf Course Tuesday, striking down hopes for a park between two park-poor cities and stirring opponents’ fears developers will turn the property into an urban hotspot and price working-class families and Latinos out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The golf course lies in west Santa Ana but is legally owned by Garden Grove. The City Council voted unanimously during Tuesday’s rare joint meeting with Santa Ana to request proposals by developers to oversee the site. The Santa Ana City Council then made a symbolic vote of agreement, which was unanimous, absent Mayor Miguel Pulido who left halfway through the meeting for a family emergency.

Before he stepped out, Pulido publicly requested the creation of two “ad hoc” committees — one for Garden Grove and one for Santa Ana — on which three council members could secretly discuss the property without having to meet in public, allowing policymaking to take place behind closed doors.

In fact, Pulido publicly recommended that each committee have less than four members each — the minimum required to make the committee meetings public — “otherwise we get into the Ralph M. Brown Act (public meetings law) and all that other stuff” and the public could attend and know what was occurring.

Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

His suggestions were largely supported by members of both city councils, including Garden Grove Mayor Steven Jones, who said the committees could be formed in as soon as two weeks. Pulido said the secret meetings would allow work to move more quickly than public meetings.

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The green light for development comes as residents have long advocated for the golf course’s reuse as a city park, according to Santa Ana resident Peter Katz, who attended some of the three community meetings held by both cities late last year to weigh public input on how the site should be used.

Garden Grove and Santa Ana have just around 500 acres in combined park space, and together comprise one of the county’s most park-poor areas. Studies have shown a community health benefit to adequate amounts of open green space in a city, as it can affect stress levels in adults and school performance in children, among other things.

But the golf course would be coveted real estate for developers as it directly connects to the main route of the upcoming OC Streetcar, which is currently under construction and expected to start running in 2021 along four miles between Santa Ana and Garden Grove’s train stations.

The golf course also sits in the historic Santa Anita neighborhood in the west end, and its predominantly Latino residents fear potential development projects on the site could uproot them in favor of higher-income outsiders who would be able to shoulder pricier rents and property taxes.

Laura Perez, one resident in the Santa Anita neighborhood, said after the meeting she now fears such a development could drive gentrification in the area and make it harder than it already is to find parking in the nearby streets.

“We’ve already seen people get into fist fights over parking there,” she said.

Santa Ana resident Karen Rodriguez said in an email that the city has seen rapid rates of gentrification “due to development that does not reflect the needs of the majority of everyday residents, who are primarily working class and immigrants.”

Instead, recent developments “have prioritized attracting higher-income groups and tourists into Santa Ana,” said Rodriguez, who’s also a community organizer for Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD).

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Development of the property would not only affect Santa Ana, said Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Nguyen during the meeting, but also neighborhoods in her district.

“We keep talking about this in the context of Santa Ana,” Nguyen said. “This kisses my boundary in my district in a very impoverished area, where there are schools; there are gang injunctions; there are high-density apartments and homes. So let’s not forget that.”

There’s also an issue of zoning. The golf course is currently designated for open space. To allow developers to move into the property would require Santa Ana to approve a zoning change prior to beginning construction on the site.

And the approval of the golf course for development comes after both cities sought a way to reuse the property without success for years, amid the eventual expiration of the golf course operator’s lease agreement in December 2020.

In 2015, Santa Ana officials had looked into purchasing the golf course and turning it into the large public park that many residents wanted, though those plans never moved forward.

But with the help of urban planning consultant SWA Group — the same firm that played a role in designing Anaheim’s glass dome transportation hub known as the ARTIC, currently facing a $2.5 million annual deficit — the cities have since come up with three different “visions” for the property that all involve development of some sort. None of the plans involve leaving the site in its entirety as a park.

But those three visions — to build either an office space hub for tech companies, a professional sports stadium, or mixed-use residential and commercial space — are merely suggestions. The cities could go with a developer whose proposal is different from any of those three plans.

It’s still unclear how much the golf course is actually worth. A dollar-value appraisal hasn’t been done for the property, and likely won’t be done until March this year, according to Alexander Quinn of Hatch Ltd, the company that performed an analysis of the surrounding area’s real estate and housing market conditions. Even then, Quinn said the appraisal might not be made public so as not to give developers certain expectations.

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While some residents support the idea of a park, Rodriguez said residents citywide have also asked for affordable housing and “community-centered development that includes them in the process from beginning to end.”

Santa Ana has a total of 1,591 affordable housing units, according to data provided by the city Planning and Building Agency.

“Both (parks and affordable housing) are needed amenities for a healthy and thriving community,” she added. “Regardless, residents who are typically ignored should be at the forefront of this decision.”

Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Garden Grove Councilman George Brietigam also before the vote warned against ignoring community input and moving too quickly “at the point of maybe taking shortcuts and making mistakes that we don’t need to.”

“Yes, let’s move forward rapidly,” he said. “But let’s not put the cart before the horse.”


Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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