Was Willowick a bad bet?

WILLOWICK GOLF COURSE in Santa Ana is on land owned by the City of Garden Grove.

The transformation of the Willowick Golf Course from an affordable set of links into a huge moneymaker was always a little like drawing to an inside straight in poker.

Possible, but not easy to do.

According to published reports, once-grandiose plans to repurpose those 101.5 acres into a glittering development that might be worth billions have hit a speed bump the size of Mt. Shasta.

After hearing from Santa Ana (where the golf course is located) that the new city council majority wanted to use the land for open space, the City of Garden Grove (which owns the land) threw in its hand.

“It is evident than an agreement for the disposition of the property acceptable to the City of Garden Grove will not be possible,” wrote Assistant City Manager Lisa Kim (who is also community development director) to the interested parties.

This latest act in the drama of Willowick shows how difficult it is to have two cities agree on much of anything. Proposals have risen and proposals have fallen. Changes in the political breeze and in state law have knocked the wind out of a new life for Willowick more than once.

Back in the 1980s, the Buena Clinton area – located close to Willowick, but in Garden Grove – was branded “the worst slum in Orange County.” A low-rent apartment community at the end of the city with many poor Hispanic families garnered national attention when the Los Angeles Times focused on it.

(It’s interesting that previous coverage by the Orange County Register and Orange County News didn’t rouse the city to act; I guess it took coast-to-coast embarrassment to move City Hall back then.)

One proposal that emerged was a land swap. Santa Ana would de-annex Willowick to Garden Grove and get Buena Clinton in return. Why would SA want a “slum”? Leadership there felt it had more experience and influence in rehabbing low-income areas and could attract copious state and federal assistance to do so.

ARTIST’S RENDERING of a stadium concept for the Willowick site.

The deal never went through, but it would have changed – or at least simplified – the fate of that land. The next door opened in 2019 with the impending end of the golf course lease on Willowick and a chance to take one of the few remaining large open spaces in Central Orange County and turn it into something grander.

Grand ideas, indeed. Ideas ranging from a sports stadium, a new mixed-use downtown, a technology campus and a mix of those led to visions of dollar signs in many eyes.

But other forces emerged. Some residents – and their supporters – rallied for low-income housing, citing the skyrocketing price of apartments. Others wanted a park. Neither of those were bad ideas, just tough sells.

Garden Grove wanted a project that would bring in a boatload of money to city coffers, along with a potentially beneficial relationship with Santa Ana going forward. The idea was to lease the land to a developer and reap rewards for years and years, rather than just sell it.

Opposition to commercial development centered – in part – on the prospect of “gentrification.” Worries about rising housing costs overwhelmed any advantage of the jobs created by such projects.

So, now we’re back to Square One, again. But not forever, and maybe not for long. A hundred acres of essentially vacant land in the middle of an increasingly crowded county is too tempting to overlook. It’s provoked a lot of dreaming and may well again. and maybe with a different ending.

Jim Tortolano’s “Retorts” column alternates with “Usually Reliable Sources.”




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