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Development is on the horizon for some of the last remaining open space between Santa Ana and Garden Grove, and those who argue the land belongs to the community say the cities have shut out the public while considering private companies’ bids to build on the area.

Over 100 green acres at the Willowick Golf Course — located in Santa Ana but legally owned by Garden Grove — are at stake, say public land advocates.

“We haven’t been heard,” said Flor Barajas-Tena, director of Orange County Communities for Responsible Development (OCCORD), an organization advocating the preservation of the cities’ few open spaces for the surrounding community. “It’s astounding.”

Both cities in a Jan. 29 joint council meeting invited companies to propose their development ideas for the golf course.

Critics say turning the area into apartments or an urban hotspot would drive gentrification and displacement from the surrounding historic and predominantly-Latino Santa Anita neighborhood, and that the space should go to the community instead.

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.

But as Garden Grove and Santa Ana comb through the developers’ proposals for the golf course, which were due June 28, the cities are refusing to make public the list of companies who have applied to be the site’s master developer.

By doing so, Barajas-Tena said the cities “are not allowing the public to participate” and that releasing the developers’ proposals as the city receives them would give the public a chance to react in real time.

“They don’t even want to give us simple information or talk to us about timelines,” she said.

Santa Ana spokeswoman Daisy Perez said the proposals that have been received are considered “active property negotiations” and that “cities mandate they remain private” until the City Council “makes a final determination to approve a developer or an action to interview the top three or four proposals is set in the future.”

Garden Grove’s Assistant City Manager Lisa Kim said the developers’ proposals won’t be made public until the selection of the master developer, which won’t be until after both city councils in a public joint session hear presentations from the top two or three developers finalists in “late August.”

The state Supreme Court has upheld local agencies’ denial of public access to development proposals and contract bids — “until presented to the decision-maker (the city councils), at least,” said Terry Francke, Voice of OC’s open government consultant and general counsel of the nonprofit Californians Aware.

But Francke said the secrecy, even if it’s legal, “signals to citizens a jealously-guarded decisional momentum that their chance at a last-minute peek can hardly be expected to influence.”

And just because the secrecy is legal doesn’t mean the cities can’t go beyond what’s required by law and take the extra step to be transparent, said Mindy Romero, director for the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California.

“Even if the lack of transparency is legally protected, it’s better to be transparent,” Romero said.

“When you have a high-stakes, high-profile issue — often around money and development — not having that information, even if it’s completely within legal limits, can make people wonder what’s happening and cry that there’s a cover-up or an obfuscation in some way,” she added. “Even if it is the norm.”

Santa Ana City Councilman Jose Solorio acknowledged “there’s been a lack of conversation and dialogue overall” on the issue but said “land negotiation processes are protected” so that “public knowledge doesn’t undermine public interest.”

Solorio said at some point, “if nothing else,” the cities could probably publicly “discuss the range and types of proposals that came in.”

Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Nguyen, who’s on an ad hoc committee set up to discuss the golf course, said in a text message that things “have been at a standstill while staff and consultants review the submittals.”

She said her committee will be meeting “soon,” with a joint council meeting “soon to follow.”

A collection of nearby Santa Ana residents and activists on Aug. 6 gathered at Campesino Park, next to the golf course, to announce the formation of a group called “Rise Up Willowick.”

The group’s purpose, according to its organizers, is to combat any project on the golf course that would worsen the neighborhood’s existing parking problems or price working-class Latino families out of the surrounding area.

“Willowick is an opportunity to provide necessary green space to address our mental and physical health and well-being. Public lands should be prioritized to address our needs and wants,” said resident Robert Escandon at the demonstration.

Studies like one by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health have shown adequate amounts of open green space in a city can benefit community health, reducing stress levels in adults and increasing school performance in children.

Escandon described Willowick as “102 acres of possibility.”

Members of Rise Up Willowick turned out to the Santa Ana City Council’s Tuesday, Aug. 20 meeting, voicing their fears of displacement while also asking the Council to involve them in the discussions around the golf course.

Santa Ana resident Marlha Sanchez told council members during the public comment period at the meeting that her grandparents bought the house she lives in on Gunther St. when her grandfather came home from the Korean War, and that he “was always afraid we were going to lose our house.”

Sanchez said with Willowick authorized for development, “now I see that happening.”

“I live here with my grandmother, I’m her caretaker, and my kids live with me. I’m a single mom, low income and I don’t know what would happen to me if we lose our house.”

The golf course is expected to be prime real estate for developers when it directly connects to the main route of the upcoming OC Streetcar, currently under construction and expected to start running in 2021 along four miles between Santa Ana and Garden Grove’s train stations, according to the Orange County Transportation Agency.

Solorio said that while he sees the importance of preserving open space at Willowick, “equally important for me is the OC Streetcar.”

“If we don’t develop it and it’s just unusable space, it’s gonna hurt ridership and it’s gonna be a missed opportunity,” Solorio said.

OCCORD organizer Karen Rodriguez at the Campesino Park demonstration said residents “refuse to stand by while the cities of Santa Ana and Garden Grove move to sell one of the largest pieces of open space in our cities, and northern Orange County, to private developers instead of collaborating alongside us.”

Barajas-Tena said prior to the councils’ Jan. 29 vote authorizing the golf course for development, the public outreach effort was marked by “false consultant-led meetings that happened in the Fall, where essentially there wasn’t a real community voice.”

With urban planning consultant SWA Group, the cities have laid out a set of “visions” for the property that all involve development of some sort, such as a sports stadium, mixed-use residential and commercial space, or space for tech companies. None of the plans involve leaving the site in its entirety as a park.

But the cities could go with a developer whose proposal is different from any of those three plans.

Immediately after both councils’ January vote, they took their discussions on the golf course behind closed doors.

Mayor Miguel Pulido had publicly requested the creation of two “ad hoc” committees — one for Garden Grove and one for Santa Ana — where council members don’t have to meet in public and could guide the discussions around the site in secret.

Pulido said the secret meetings would allow both cities to move more quickly on the golf course than public meetings.

Barajas-Tena said that’s where “it all began.”

When OCCORD recently asked the cities for an update on when they could expect another joint council meeting on the golf course, Barajas-Tena said they got a response “to the effect of ‘anything you ask us, at this point in time, you’re going to have to submit a Public Records Act request for.’”

Francke said despite local governments’ “lofty aspirations to public ‘engagement,’ public exclusion is the rule whenever serious money or power are at stake.”

“To borrow a phrase from another context,” he added, “the disabling of effective public participation is not a bug in the system — it’s a feature of the system.”

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

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