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In a rare discussion this week, elected officials in Santa Ana got publicly vocal about a consequential open space fight playing out in their own front yard.

The ongoing struggle for the 102-acre Willowick Golf Course — located in west Santa Ana and legally owned by the City of Garden Grove — has drawn various interest groups with many ideas for the fate of one of central county’s last undeveloped open spaces.

The outcome of that fight could have long-lasting effects on the park-poor, less affluent Santa Anita and Buena Clinton neighborhoods surrounding the golf course — a prospect which brings about fears of gentrification, worsening traffic and environmental impacts. 

The golf course could become a rare regional park, a bastion for housing, or a community hub; it could become all of those things mixed together, according to different people.

Yet the land is caught between two cities, three development firms, and a coalition of community activists — each with different priorities.

Santa Ana City Council members, speaking at a Tuesday night meeting during an update on the Willowick negotiations, expressed theirs:

“I will say right now, for the record, that I want to see an enormous amount of open space on the property. That may make some folks cringe as far as the developer community, but so be it,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra.  

He added: “Everybody has talked about how much our city needs more recreation and park space and I will put it on the record that I will support an enormous amount there.”

Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez had similar thoughts:

“For me, I’m only going to consider the community needs (around) that property, and that is, people are demanding open space be utilized in all the right ways — I think affordable housing is something we should also incorporate …”

Bacerra’s remarks came after taking aim at one company in the running for the property, a group that’s submitted a development proposal for the site under the name “Willowick Community Partners.” 

Bacerra said the firm’s vision for the site, as it stands right now, doesn’t plan for enough open space: 

“While I respect the residential developer that’s a part of Willowick Community Partners, unfortunately, I will say the proposal … really did not accommodate open space.”

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On one end of all three firms in the running for Willowick is a hotel development company, McWhinney, which proposes to build 2,231 total housing units on the golf course — the highest proposed amount of housing development. 

At the other end is the Trust for Public Lands, the only party supported by a formal coalition of activists and surrounding neighborhood residents known as “Rise Up Willowick,” which has prioritized the area becoming a regional public park in its proposal.

Willowick Community Partners has staked its appeal on a proposal that it argues comes to the middle — a proposal which would seek a mix of open space and housing development of 1,690 units.

Just 25% of both Willowick Community Partners’ and McWhinney’s proposals’ total units would be restricted to affordable housing, while the rest would be market-rate.

The Willowick Community Partners LLC is formed and managed by three groups: 

City Ventures, an eco-friendly home builder company; Primestor, a business and property development company focused on marginalized communities; and affordable housing nonprofit, Jamboree Housing.

Kelsey Brewer, Jamboree’s communications and policy manager, responded to Bacerra’s remarks in a Wednesday phone interview by arguing that her group’s proposal is a “starting point” subject to change as the group gathers more community input. 

“If the feedback is that changes need to be made to put more priority towards open space, we’re definitely willing to engage in those conversations, and work towards compromises,” said Ryan Aeh, Senior Vice President of City Ventures, during the same call. 

Brewer acknowledged there may be a debate “of whether the need for community (through housing) outweighs the acreage needed for open space.” 

“And we’re definitely open to having that conversation,” she said.

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Bacerra, on Tuesday, also voiced concern over an “unsolicited” proposal by Willowick Community Partners which found itself on the desks of council members during a closed session meeting in April of last year.

The Willowick Community Partners at the time asked the city to “attach itself” to the group’s efforts in winning over Garden Grove officials on the property.

When Aeh and Brewer were asked about their group’s April proposal, the two said there was no formal project proposal for the site when the group approached the City Council in closed session.

Instead, the effort was to include the city in a vision for the property at an early stage, the two said. 

“It was only natural for us to reach out to Santa Ana, to see if they would formally join our team on the ground floor,” Aeh said. “It was really just an invitation to join our team so that we could simply acquire the site and so that the city could have a seat at the table. We did not present them a project.”

Bacerra put it this way at Tuesday’s meeting:

“There was an attempt at one point to pretty much seal the fate of that property back in 2020. Thankfully it failed 4-3, we rejected the unsolicited proposal from the Willowick Community Partners

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It was Rise Up Willowick which forced the City of Garden Grove to follow the state Surplus Land Act in late 2019. For most of that year, the city argued the land wasn’t subject to the state law, which prioritizes “surplus” property for open space and affordable housing uses.

In late 2019, after a lawsuit by Rise Up Willowick, a Los Angeles County judge ruled the Willowick Golf Course was indeed subject to the state Surplus Land Act, and that the City of Garden Grove couldn’t go through with a deal on the table around that time to hand a master lease for the property to McWhinney.

[Read: Judge Rules Garden Grove Can’t Finalize Willowick Deal with Developer Before Tighter State Land Use Laws Take Effect]

As a result, the group largely pushed all interested parties around the property more or less to its side, as all the proposals incorporate — to different degrees — ideas of open space.

The City of Garden Grove has entered into formal 90-day negotiations under the Surplus Land Act with all three groups. 

In April, 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 Garden Grove Assistant City Manager Lisa Kim to the Trust for Public Lands on April 16. 

That refusal is apparently driven by the city’s $90 million valuation of the property, based on appraisal criticized by Rise Up Willowick as making assumptions around the land’s future zoning. 

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There’s a sentiment among community activists like Flor Barajas-Tena, a lead strategist with Rise Up Willowick, that the City of Santa Ana has a considerable authoritative stake in the steps Garden Grove officials take throughout the negotiation process: 

“As a council, they can take a stronger stance … that would potentially shift the negotiations.”

On Tuesday, Bacerra cast doubt on whether his city was in a position to do anything right now: 

“We haven’t had an application (by a developer firm) to discuss the zoning for the site yet …  When we do receive that development application, I would expect for us to have a very transparent robust discussion … since we don’t have anything at this point I don’t see what the concern is.”

Barajas-Tena said “the City of Santa Ana seemingly cannot do anything about the negotiations under Garden Grove right now, but it can indicate to the City of Garden Grove that this issue is critical for us — that they can do.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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