To some, it’s only another little golf course in Southern California. 

But to residents living by the 102-acres of grass and trees that make up the Willowick Golf Course property off the Santa Ana River, it’s one of the only shades of green they see in their daily lives.

They’re all but surrounded by an ever-expanding sea of gray, the expanse that is central Orange County’s urban streets, plazas, and buildings where heat islands abound but shady trees and big open spaces are rare.

On hotter days, the pavement around these neighborhoods can make it hotter. Street vendors endure it on foot. Kids feel it on the burning schoolyard blacktop through their shoes.

The idea of environmentalists can conjure images of demonstrators in a campaign to block pipelines or protect endangered species.

Within the urban environment of central county, they look like people who want more arboreal areas around town – people like Cynthia Guerra, Karen Romero Estrada, Karen Rodriguez, and Flor Barajas-Tena. 

Counting the Wins

The 18-hole golf course awaits redevelopment in west Santa Ana. But it’s legally owned by the neighboring City of Garden Grove.

One October morning two years ago, Cynthia Guerra tagged along with some locals biking over the Santa Ana River. They pedaled past Willowick and reflected on the unique role it might play in their lives – that their view of the expanse through the perimeter’s high-rising nets might disappear.

Rise Up Willowick Coalition with residents from the Santa Anita and Buena Clinton neighborhoods on a community bike ride co-organized by Santa Ana Active Streets (SAAS). Credit: COURTESY OF RISE UP WILLOWICK

And maybe they could do something about it.

By then, they had all coalesced under a movement called Rise Up Willowick, which fought to preserve Willowick as an urban park between two crowded and built-out cities, a place for people to gather, stretch, and think. The group helped organize that day’s community ride with the Santa Ana Active Streets coalition.

Guerra, an organizer with the group, recalls being taken by the “serene” quiet, coasting over the river’s bridge that morning in 2020. She’d only ever seen it from a passing car, like many parts of town the group biked past through. But she said it pulled her out from “all the busyness” of the urban grid awaiting her return at the other side.

The bike tour gave those living in Willowick’s nearby neighborhoods a more intimate experience with parts of the community “we would normally drive by in a car,” Guerra said. “I had seen that bridge multiple times from a distance and never thought to cross it.”

“Willowick is like that. It can be a serene and quiet place where all you see is grass and trees, very different from the concrete sidewalks and urban setting that surrounds it,” she added.

But Willowick’s a place “where the community is not invited” despite its golf balls nearly inviting themselves to local residents’ yards, Guerra said.

“It’s dangled obscenely in front of our eyes,” Guerra said. 

Cynthia Guerra, Rise Up Willowick Organizer. Credit: COURTESY OF CYNTHIA GUERRA

Garden Grove City Council members appeared to reinforce that idea among critics last month.

Council members abruptly cut off Willowick land negotiations with various developers under state law, the Surplus Land Act, which has a special place for public benefits like open space and affordable housing when it comes to selling public land.

The city’s attorney, Omar Sandoval, has said the ceasing of negotiations triggered a key provision under that law. If a deal can’t be reached with groups proposing at least 25% affordable housing in their project, that threshold lowers to 15%.

In some ways, Rise Up Willowick organizers are upbeat over the city’s pulling of the plug.

The end of negotiations means activists aren’t any closer to their vision of a large public park. 

But the property’s fate is back in the air, and that makes them optimistic. 

Garden Grove officials already denied the pricing offer from one interested developer group which Rise Up Willowick publicly supported, called the Trust for Public Lands. 

“Initially our reaction was that what we were advocating for wouldn’t materialize at this stage and after four years that was really difficult to hear,” said Karen Romero Estrada, Rise Up Willowick Researcher. “Another reaction was that we succeeded in our goals to stop the disposition of Willowick in a free-market process and cause harm to the surrounding area.”

“We see the stop of the process as a success for that reason,” she said. 

Rise Up Willowick Researcher Karen Romero Estrada. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Rise Up Willowick Organizer Karen Rodriguez said the abrupt end to the Surplus Land Act process was “hard to accept,” yet, “at least there isn’t a Jamba Juice on there.”

Set in Stone?

The Rise Up Willowick coalition consisted of various community organizers across both towns, even a current Santa Ana City Council member.

The intent was to design the movement around what residents wanted to see – “not put words in their mouth,” said Flor Barajas-Tena, who helped lead the group over the last few years as the campaign strategist.

By the group’s own count, the coalition held 33 community meetings, one bike ride session, two virtual “teach-ins,” three “courtyard sessions” in the nearby Buena Clinton neighborhood, two community park design workshops, two COVID-19 health clinics, and one group hike since it started up.

Organizers say they also surveyed more than 350 people and knocked on over 500 doors over the past several years. “What we were fostering was community organizing,” Barajas-Tena said.

“I never talked to my neighbors until I got involved with Rise Up Willowick,” said Byron Lopez, a coalition member and mobile home resident of the Santa Anita neighborhood, for whom the golf course has “been sort of an ever-present thing in my life, but most people where I live — no one ever thought anything of it, but for golf.”

Byron, Rise Up Willowick coalition member and resident speaks during a community bike ride. Credit: COURTESY OF RISE UP WILLOWICK

Having a good offering of publicly-accessible community space “is essential,” Lopez said, adding that everyone’s otherwise “alienated from each other.”

At times, when he talked with people from the neighborhood during his participation with the group, Lopez said “some would just raise their hands, give up before even trying — ‘It’s the government,’ ‘It’s rich people,’ – because they always win.”

Then members of Rise Up Willowick threw a wrench into the City of Garden Grove’s plans, in 2019. The group argued the city had to follow the Surplus Land Act after officials started negotiating with proposers who, for a time, were not made public. 

The city didn’t originally agree. 

So local organizers sued. 

A Los Angeles County Judge’s initial ruling on the lawsuit in late 2019 then put the brakes on a last-minute effort by the city to lease the property to McWhinney, a hotel and resort developer, before tighter applications of the Surplus Land Act took effect in 2020. 

The city backed off and restarted the process under the state law the next year. 

Lopez said the group helped him realize that perhaps the neighborhood’s destiny wasn’t set in stone, that maybe it didn’t have to go this way if they tried. 

“We can take control of our destiny, we can win fights if we’re willing to come together as communities to fight back,” Lopez said.

Then Rise Up Willowick had other visions to contend with.

A Place to Live

In late 2020, another Orange County activist named Kelsey Brewer wrote an Op-Ed about Willowick in the Voice of OC. 

Brewer’s worn various advocacy hats, also a leader at the Orange County Young Democrats, where she was outspoken about county politics after the police murder of George Floyd. She’s also a fierce housing advocate who helped to bring about the Orange County Housing Finance Trust.

But she wrote her Op-Ed that year in her official capacity as a communication and policy manager for the Jamboree Housing Corporation.

It’s one of California’s largest non-profit affordable housing developers.

Jamboree had also come on board with two other companies, City Ventures and Primestor, in vying for Willowick under an entity known as “Willowick Community Partners,” proposing less open space than the Trust for Public Lands – but also less housing development than the other competitor, a for-profit hotel and resort builder called McWhinney.

Brewer’s piece that year mentioned the ways the Surplus Land Act still fell short of its legislative spirit regarding public land sales: “At the end of the day, a city can still choose to build what they want, with who they want – whether it benefits the community or not.” 

The Willowick Golf Course sits in west-end Santa Ana but is legally owned by the City of Garden Grove. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Jamboree representative then wrote that Willowick Community Partners’ proposal for Willowick “was responsive to the specific interests of the community,” while still giving Garden Grove city officials a reason to swing for it by providing “millions in economic return and revenue.”

“I’ve seen the data shows that housing is one of the best interventions for struggling communities in terms of stabilizing and helping them,” Brewer said in an interview last month.

Thus, Jamboree’s priority was housing.

California’s short of it by maybe two to three million homes. And a March statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found “a record-high 46 percent of Californians say the cost of their housing makes them and their family seriously consider moving.”

The crisis makes Californians four times more likely to live in crowded housing than the average American, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which adds that, when taking the cost of housing into consideration, “California has the highest poverty rate in the nation.”

Brewer and other stakeholders with Willowick Community Partners, in turn, viewed the golf course as a potential part of the solution.

“We really believed that incorporating not only open space, but affordable housing (the group’s plan proposed a mixed-income housing development), economic opportunities, and a cultural facility – which was also the other unique part of our plan – was gonna allow us to do that,” Brewer said.

Four days after Brewer’s Op-Ed, Rodriguez of Rise Up Willowick responded with her own.

She wrote that Brewer’s Op-Ed “read like shameless self-promotion” and “feigned” to speak for the needs of the surrounding community, invoking Rise Up Willowick’s name but pushing Willowick Community Partners’ proposal instead.

At the time, “it felt like they were co-opting our language and aligning themselves in our image with their values,” Rodriguez said, looking back in an interview last month.

To Rise Up Willowick members, Willowick Community Partners’ vision ran counter to theirs. It lacked the amount of open space that members of the coalition looked for. Some Santa Ana City Council members agreed, publicly, from the dais in 2021.

Rise Up Willowick Lead Organizer Karen Rodriguez CREDIT: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health associated higher levels of neighborhood green space with “significantly lower levels of symptomology for depression, anxiety and stress, after controlling for a wide range of confounding factors.” The study’s results suggested that ‘greening’ could be a potential population mental health improvement strategy in the United States.

In Santa Ana, roughly 4% of total city land counts for open space, according to research by the Trust for Public Lands. But not all of it’s for recreational use. Places like cemeteries are counted toward this percentage. In Garden Grove, the Trust for Public Lands puts that percentage around 1%.

Willowick Community Partners stakeholders contended their proposal was the most feasible.

Rise Up Willowick members didn’t seem to be as concerned about whether their demands – quality-of-life needs – were deemed feasible. 

Rodriguez said Rise Up Willowick never wavered in its demands. “We held onto that vision and we were expansive. We never left it.”

For people like Lopez, the mobile homeowner, “coming to the middle doesn’t always make it better. You give an inch, they get a mile.”

He also said Rise Up Willowick’s push for a park doesn’t make the group anti-housing. 

The Trust for Public Lands submitted two different proposals, one with 100% open space to secure what Rise Up Willowick and Trust for Public Lands argued was a “super-priority” for open space in the law. 

The group at the same time sent in another, separate plan, which incorporated a limited amount of 100% affordable housing in partnership with Clifford Beers Housing, but still mostly open space as that’s what organizers said they heard most about from residents. 

Guerra said people in the neighborhoods were at times hesitant to embrace the idea of housing on the site – “parking issues, people brought that up.” 

But, she added, “once we gave people the space to design housing in that hypothetical community, they really started thinking about it in a different way … ‘Where can we place it?’ … If you go out and actually ask people, they can help you design projects well versus wanting no projects anywhere because they had no control.”

It was Rise Up Willowick that did all the door-knocking.

In turn, the coalition’s leaders criticized the different interests within Willowick Community Partners for doing virtually no public community engagement by comparison.

“They were never knocking on doors,” Barajas-Tena said of the last several years that the land proposals have been in play.

Brewer said her group always intended to engage with the community – but after its proposal had hopefully moved forward: “Public community outreach was going to happen after we were picked.”

“We were delivering the economics – then, we could spend even more time and resources (after the group’s selection) to do extensive community outreach, and co-author the next iteration of our plan with the community,” said Ryan Aeh of City Ventures.

“We were focused on finding the group organizers and activists that can validate what we’re saying, and speak to our track record, that can speak to our values as individual companies and as a partnership, ” Brewer said, but added it wasn’t with the intention of getting people’s endorsement of any specific plan. 

Barajas-Tena said Rise Up Willowick had no intention of being a “cute little logo” on a larger entity interested in the golf course.

She said her group’s jumping-off point was the notion that people in the community could push their own demands, without riding in the sidecar. “We started with the approach that people did have power.”

Flor Barajas Tena, Rise Up Willowick Strategist stands in the grassy area of Cesar Chavez Park in Santa Ana, which is parallel to the Willowick Golf Course. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The results, she said, speak for themselves: The organizers through their 2019 legal challenge had pushed the scales of a Southern California public land battle to their side. Rise Up Willowick was the reason groups like Jamboree could be a part of the process in the first place. 

Barajas-Tena said the Willowick problem ties into that idea of awareness – what everyday people know about and don’t. 

It speaks to the way a lack of open, accessible places for people to gather has largely kept them, and their power, separated, said Barajas-Tena, and “to the built environment when there aren’t spaces to congregate.” 

“Then there’s always this idea of collective power,” she added. “We are stronger when we are together. When we are fighting this as a collective, we have a better chance at challenging systems of power.”

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

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