Barajas: City Open Space Shouldn’t Be Tucked Behind Closed Doors

 

Planning and policy decisions should be inextricably tied to the basic principles of a participatory democracy, with every resident having a voice. However, in an effort to streamline development, politicians make these decisions in the dark only concerned with short-term political and financial gains.

The proposed redevelopment of the Willowick Golf Course is an example of how the councils of Garden Grove and Santa Ana, including Mayor Pulido and Mayor Steven Jones want to squash resident participation. In fact, they have publicly expressed they want to limit participation in determining the future for Willowick by forming ad-hoc committees that will meet in secret to “streamline” the development process.

What is Willowick? Willowick is a 102-acre public plot of land owned by the City of Garden Grove and within the boundaries of Santa Ana. The Willowick Golf Course is ending its lease and the public land can be open to redevelopment. The cities have three potential projects for the area including a stadium and they are on the verge of issuing a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for a Master Developer, one that most likely will not include a true community vision.  There is a lot at stake in the proposed redevelopment of this huge public asset.

Cities in their capacity as chief architects of zoning policy have an important role in shaping the development patterns for our neighborhoods. The 102-acre site is currently zoned as Open Space, which allows for permanent open spaces such as parks. Building anything outside of a park, would require an Upzone change by adjusting the zoning to allow for greater density. This allows developers to capture those gains made possible by the increase in allowable density.

In other words, Mayor Pulido’s rich developer friends would be lining their pockets because zoning changes are major subsidies for developers.

Long-time residents in the cities of Santa Ana and Garden Grove can be pushed out as a result of this zoning change. This comes at a time when OCTA is in the process of the OC Streetcar development and considering Willowick as one of its transit stops. Long-term residents can see their housing costs skyrocket and their streets become even more congested. Giving up this open space to developers not only deprives us of some of the last remnants of open space in Orange County, but it threatens the residents if local protections are not required in the RFQ.

Pulido and Jones’s plans to give Willowick away to developers aren’t even legal under the CA Surplus Land Act. The CA Surplus Land Act requires that all cities prioritize surplus land for the development of affordable housing, as well as parks and open space. The Act sets forth detailed requirements that a city must follow when selling or leasing land that is no longer necessary for the City’s use. Willowick is publicly owned by the City of Garden Grove and as cities become built out, the land is one of the most precious resources that cities can use to spur equitable development, especially at a time when low-income residents are painfully living the realities of the statewide housing crisis. By definition, these assets are for the public to decide their future use.

As an Urban Planner and resident of Santa Ana, it makes me sad that I have to drive to Irvine to go to a park with rolling green hills and play structures that have not been worn down by the sun. There is great value to having open spaces, but they have to be deemed as valuable by politicians as well.  Everything in our built environment is the way it is because policymakers made political decisions about land use. We know for sure that the built environment holds tremendous potential for addressing our greatest public health concerns including obesity, asthma, and social inequities.

It is shameful to think that Willowick, currently zoned as Open Space, would not be considered to be developed as a regional park for both cities, especially because Santa Ana has been deemed as park poor, ranking 87 out of 100 largest US cities by the  Trust for Public Land’s  2018, Park Score.

These are the takeaways:  Zoning changes are massive subsidies for developers and can cause displacement if there are no local protections; the City of Garden Grove should adhere to the Surplus Land Act and not give away public land to the highest bidder; Santa Ana and Garden Grove residents are deserving of more open space and parks.

As an activist and someone who understands the effects of planning decisions, land-use decisions have impacts on generations to come and determine who gets to remain and thrive in our cities. We demand that the City of Garden Grove adhere to the Surplus Land Act. The future of Willowick should not be determined behind closed doors.

 

Flor Barajas is the Deputy Director at Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD)