The Fight for Access to Nature in Central Orange County

NRDC has been working with activists in Orange County on an exciting plan to increase access to nature and affordable housing in a community that needs more of both. My colleague Dani Garcia is here to share this update.

The Rise Up Willowick Coalition

Public parks have been my lifeline to physical and mental health throughout this pandemic. From regular walks to socially distanced exercise classes, parks allowed me to stay active while my usual workout studio was closed. All communities should reap the same health benefits that I get from visiting my local park. Open space is loved by the surrounding neighborhoods and can be used as a place to form community and foster new relationships. Unfortunately, in the United States, all ZIP codes are not created equal, and these inequities have devastating public health consequences. Even sunny Orange County, which boasts affluent beach communities and is often portrayed in the media as uniformly wealthy, is home to low-income neighborhoods of color like Santa Ana and Buena Clinton that are disproportionately saddled with concentrated air pollution, extreme heat, and toxic soil. Fortunately, there’s an opportunity to preserve significant open space for these communities to help fight these environmental injustices and increase the health benefits that parks can provide to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Willowick is the last remaining large piece of public open space in central Orange County.

The Willowick Public Golf Course (Willowick) is a rare section of green space in central Orange County, located in Santa Ana and owned by the City of Garden Grove. This precious 102-acre site filters toxic emissions and reduces intense heat for local residents. Although Willowick is currently used as a golf course, it is being proposed for redevelopment by the City of Garden Grove.

Only 4% of Santa Ana is dedicated to open space, including the Willowick property.

Private developers looking to turn Willowick into a large-scale luxury development project in an already park-deficient area of Orange County doesn’t make sense. The average family in the census tracts surrounding Willowick made a median annual income of $48,185, much lower than Orange County’s median of $92,700. Nearby cities like Irvine allocate 27% of their total land as open space. Low-income residents near Willowick should be allowed to do the same.

Willowick’s future development should be decided by local residents and not behind closed doors.

The Rise Up Willowick Coalition (RUW) includes Santa Ana and Garden Grove residents and local organizations in central Orange County who have joined together to fight back against ongoing efforts to turn Willowick into a large-scale development that would displace vulnerable residents and increase gentrification pressures city-wide. Over the past year, RUW’s core team hosted numerous community outreach meetings and knocked on hundreds of residents’ doors to track community needs and concerns surrounding Willowick. When the City of Garden Grove withheld information about plans to redevelop Willowick in violation of the Surplus Land Act (AB 1486), the Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) sued the city on behalf of RUW and secured a preliminary injunction, preventing the city from closing a deal to develop Willowick behind closed doors. Under AB 1486, not only does the city have a moral obligation to ensure the Willowick site benefits the community, but there is a legal obligation to do so.

Rise Up Willowick built a campaign rooted in community-grounded research and data to support residents’ lived experiences.

RUW surveyed more than 300 local residents to better understand the needs and wishes of the community. Ninety-five percent of the surveys were from respondents who live within a half-mile of Willowick. When asked “what would you like to see happen to the land at Willowick,” the survey revealed that:

  • 62% of respondents would like to see more parks and open spaces;
  • 54% of respondents would like to see affordable housing developed; and
  • 35% of respondents would like to see a community center.

When asked what they would not want to see happen to Willowick, the survey results showed:

  • 44% of respondents oppose development of market-rate housing; and
  • 45% of respondents oppose construction of a stadium.

RUW’s final report entitled Willowick: Opportunity to Use Public Land for Public Good makes clear that the majority of local residents hope to see substantial reinvestment in the existing community and revitalization of parks and open spaces.

The Willowick property is public land and should be used to serve the public.

In response to California’s unprecedented affordable housing crisis and growing public health inequities, many people are reaching for novel solutions that prioritize community needs such as affordable housing and public parkland. Daniel Dunham, a designer at the Santa Monica-based Koning Eizenberg Architecture firm sees public golf courses as an ideal spot to build affordable housing. Willowick could be used for a similar purpose -- to build affordable housing that provides meaningful access to nature in Santa Ana. RUW is working tirelessly to prevent the development of Willowick into a project that threatens to perpetuate social and environmental harms, and NRDC supports the coalition’s efforts to ensure Willowick is used for public parkland and affordable housing.

Santa Ana and Garden Grove need to ensure that Willowick becomes a community asset that helps address the needs of their current residents.

Low-income communities of color across the U.S. are now facing a quadruple whammy of a killer pandemic, gripping job losses, housing instability, and converging threats posed by climate change such as wildfires and extreme heat waves. Urban greening has been scientifically proven to reduce heat levels in major cities, capture natural rainfall, and absorb air-born toxins. Improved urban land use and community-driven development projects could reduce the negative effects of climate change nationwide while increasing quality of life in climate-vulnerable communities that are overwhelmingly low-income communities of color. That’s why developing affordable housing in conjunction with parkland is so important. Local governments like Santa Ana and Garden Grove have the power to address their community’s urgent needs by preserving parkland and investing in affordable housing. Public land like Willowick should be used to serve and meet the needs of the surrounding communities.

About the Authors

Damon Nagami

Senior Attorney, Lands Division, Nature Program

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