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While Garden Grove officials recently moved to plant more trees amid a potential climate emergency, some are perplexed that the same city has turned down an initial offer to create a rare park in central Orange County.

In a place with few parks, what’s being called a “now or never” opportunity to preserve much of the 102-acres of open space at the Willowick Golf Course — owned by the City of Garden Grove but located in west Santa Ana — has pitted many in the community against city leaders.

Under state law, when cities have a piece of surplus property, they’re supposed to give the community the first crack at buying or leasing the land for open space and affordable housing uses.

Garden Grove officials didn’t want to at first, and critics fear they still don’t. 

Though the city was forced to do so after losing a legal challenge in 2019 to the land’s neighboring residents and activists, who united under a coalition known as Rise Up Willowick to press officials on what could be the last chance to add an urban park to this park-poor area.

Now members of Rise Up Willowick are calling out a continued lack of transparency by the city even after it restarted the process and now weighs three proposals by different groups seeking to either lease or buy the land, while the city’s elected leaders have since voiced second thoughts about giving the land up altogether. 

“I’m not necessarily sold that we need to sell the land to be honest anymore,” said one Garden Grove council member, George Breitigam, at a meeting in December last year.

The fight for Willowick most recently took a turn last month, when the group that Rise Up Willowick supports — the Trust for Public Lands — received a letter from Garden Grove officials rejecting their initial bid for the land. 

“We hereby confirm that your offer of $2,131,500 for the purchase of the Willowick Golf Course property is unacceptable and we cannot recommend that the City Council accept it,” wrote Kim, the assistant city manager, to the Trust for Public Lands on April 16. 

That refusal by the city may have already triggered a negotiation window around the land, required by the Surplus Land Act, which could close in three months from that time.  

Kim in the letter argued that the other two groups vying for the land had put in what they viewed as far better offers, while the city was more interested in leasing the land out rather than selling it.

Requests for comment to Kim, as well as Garden Grove City Attorney Omar Sandoval, went unreturned as of Monday.

The sale or lease of Willowick, and its eventual development into park, commercial and housing space at the hands of whoever wins control of it, could reshape central Orange County — physically, socioeconomically, and demographically — for the next several decades.

Rise Up Willowick sees the Trust for Public Lands’ proposal as most in line with the community’s needs. An organizer for the coalition, Flor Barajas-Tena, said the city has said nothing in public about the negotiation period opening up elsewhere.

Neither Sandoval nor Kim responded when asked by Voice of OC about this.

“The ongoing lack of transparency during this time is problematic, especially as we’re still dealing with a pandemic and we’re not able to go in front of the City Council in person,” Barajas-Tena said in an interview over Zoom. 

Barajas-Tena also questioned why the city has only made public its correspondence with the Trust for Public Lands since December of last year, but hasn’t publicized its correspondence with the other groups. Neither Sandoval nor Kim responded to this.

Then there others vying for Willowick who say they, too, have designed a vision that’s in line with the community’s needs.

“We’re a proponent of affordable housing, but we need to do it in economically sustainable ways,” said Michael Massie, Chief Housing Development Officer at Jamboree Housing Corp., an affordable housing developer. 

Jamboree is one of a number of groups that banded together under an LLC known as Willowick Community Partners, which is competing with the Trust for Public Lands and hotel/resort developer McWhinney for control of Willowick. 

Voice of OC requests for comment to McWhinney went unreturned.

The County of Orange has also thrown its hat into the ring, but more as a supportive party to whichever of the main three are eventually selected by the council.

The Trust for Public Lands in its proposal plans for the most open space and affordable housing. McWhinney proposes the most development and least open space. Willowick Community Partners proposes a mix between open space, affordable and for-profit housing. 

“Our design was, with that in mind, creating livable places for people across the socioeconomic spectrum,” Massie said. “In a way, that’s more pragmatic … low-income alongside market rate — we see that as an intrinsic good.”

Yet some of those at Rise Up Willowick see the other groups as outsiders trying to cash in on the opportunity that the coalition paved the way for. 

Barajas-Tena said Rise Up Willowick was the group that did the grassroots work and organized people to speak out, protest and challenge elected officials at City Hall over the past few years: “We’re the ones that have had 1,000-plus conversations.”

Kelsey Brewer, Jamboree’s communications and policy manager, indeed acknowledged the fact that her group was only allowed to enter the fold after Rise Up Willowick pressured Garden Grove into budging on state law. 

“We’re grateful to (them) for pushing this. They were the ones to get Garden Grove to proceed with this land in accordance with the Surplus Land Act, and that’s important,” Brewer said on Monday. 

But Brewer defended her group as a contender, saying the community surrounding the golf course “is way more than just one group.”

“Jamboree’s strength is finding the middle … our perspective is the community needs more than just open space, and that’s what our proposal is doing,” Brewer said. “We have the mix the community is looking for in terms of open space, commercial and housing opportunities.”

This debate also played out in op-ed pieces by both sides on Voice of OC’s community opinion page.

Those in Rise Up Willowick fear any for-profit development on the site could change the surrounding, predominantly working-class Santa Anita and Buena Clinton neighborhoods and price people out of their homes. 

“What’s going to be lost is this opportunity to create something for future generations to have,” Barajas-Tena said. “It’s clear that residents, both young and old, want to see something that is beautiful, that is accessible … where they’re able to be free and able to walk.”

On the day she and fellow Rise Up Willowick organizers Cynthia Guerra, Karen Rodriguez and Karen Romero-Estrada spoke with Voice of OC, the City Council on May 11 voted to move forward with a long-term strategic plan for planting more trees over the next few decades to combat rising temperatures and air pollution.

“The City of Garden Grove today is discussing whether or not they need more trees,” Barajas-Tena said on May 11. “Well, Willowick is another opportunity to have that,”

McWhinney’s proposal is mostly geared around development — namely around market-rate, higher-end housing. The group’s proposal plans the least amount of open space, out of all three groups, to be preserved.

McWhinney was formerly the frontrunner for the land back when the city was ignoring the community’s calls to apply the state Surplus Land Act. The council, with little discussion, came close to leasing the property to McWhinney in late 2019. 

Then came Rise Up Willowick’s lawsuit, arguing the city was going about the process all wrong. 

By the end of that year, a Los Angeles County judge decided that the community coalition was right.

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