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Santa Ana-Garden Grove Golf Course Development Irks Residents

Rise Up Willowick protestors in Cesar Chavez Park bordering Willowick Golf Course. Photo by Jackson Guilfoil

A much beloved neighborhood park in a Santa Ana might be paved over to build an undecided project, drawing the ire of residents and local advocacy groups, leading them to form a coalition against the possible development.

Located in the working class Santa Anita neighborhood, Cesar Chavez Park is part of a joint Garden Grove-Santa Ana plan to develop the small park and neighboring Willowick Golf Course. The development proposals being considered include a stadium, luxury housing, and tech center. In response, residents formed Rise Up Willowick [1], since the Garden Grove-owned golf course contains the majority of the 100-plus acres of public land slated for development.

The newly formed coalition demonstrated their vexation with a small protest in Cesar Chavez Park on Aug. 6, drawing a crowd of 36 people holding signs and giving speeches in English and Spanish.

“Development like this will cause rents to increase in the area because it attracts folks with a higher income than folks here,” said Cynthia Guerra, an organizer for the Kennedy Commission, a housing advocacy group. “It will most likely displace a lot of folks.”

On the City of Garden Grove website, a post seeking a master developer for Willowick describes the area around the golf course as “affluent,” whereas average household income in the Santa Anita neighborhood is $50,930. The average is $86,217 for all of Orange County.

The residents and advocates lamented what they deemed as insufficient attempts to listen to the wants and needs of those currently living in the Santa Anita neighborhood, citing a meeting on Oct. 25, 2018 where the city polled residents asking if they would prefer a stadium, luxury housing, or a tech center for Willowick. The overwhelming majority of those polled said they didn’t want any of it.

“I feel that they’re being bought out by developers,” said Laura Perez, who was at the meeting. “If you look at everyone who works for those departments and those companies, they don’t work here. They make a quick buck off of development and the highest bidders and they walk away.”

Garden Grove and Santa Ana have created joint ad hoc committees to review various requests for proposals (RFPs) aimed at developing Willowick.

According to Santa Ana Council Member Jose Solorio, the cities are years away from breaking ground on any development, as there are still many bureaucratic hoops to jump through, such as rezoning the area, since it’s currently zoned for open space.

Perez aimed much of her frustration at Solorio, who represents Santa Ana’s Ward Three, which encompasses Santa Anita. According to Perez, Solorio finally started showing up to community meetings recently, while residents have been concerned over development plans for around a year.

“It was a little bit upsetting that he is now acting upon wanting to be involved in this process, but it’s only for his advantage,” Perez said. “The way we’re seeing it is he’s taking this as a way to add it onto his resume now that he’s running for mayor next year.”

Solorio took issue with Perez’s characterization of his meeting attendance, and said that he goes to the neighborhood meetings frequently, citing one he attended on July 19. Solorio added that he speaks with Felipe Guerrero, president of the Santa Anita Neighborhood Association, around five to 10 times a month about various issues concerning the neighborhood.

Guerrero could not be reached for comment as of press time.

“The most important consideration will be how the development includes open space and minimizes gentrification to low income working class families,” Solorio said. “It’s of high importance to me to help that neighborhood.”

But Solorio would not say what kind of development he’d like to see at Willowick. He said he will make a decision on his ideal development project once Santa Ana and Garden Grove review the RFPs. Solorio added that developing Willowick Golf Course could be a good thing for the residents, since the golf course is scarcely used by people living in Santa Anita.

“Sure, a big stadium or massive office towers may not be a good fit, but having a golf course that many can’t afford to use isn’t the best neighbor, either,” Solorio said. “The demographics of who use the golf course vs. who lives literally right next door are different.”

Residents like Perez want more than simply to be heard by city officials–they want a position on the ad hoc committees reviewing the RFPs.

Solorio was reticent to endorse that idea, saying that the committees were supposed to be run by elected officials, but he also said that, in his opinion, the Santa Anita residents should have a “seat at the table.”

Rise Up Willowick issued a list of demands, which are clean parks, affordable housing, youth services, promotion of local businesses, and increased investment in education for their community.

Karen Rodriguez, an organizer with the Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), fears for Santa Anita based on what’s happened in cities like San Francisco, where lucrative properties have popped up next to working class neighborhoods.

“A proposed development like a stadium, like luxury housing, like a tech center, usually in other cities have caused displacement because of gentrification,” Rodriguez said. “We believe based on other people’s experience that displacement will happen if something is created there that is not by us.”