The Rossmoor Center annexation … Was it really “theft?”

Probably no incident irritates Rossmoor residents more than the annexation of the Rossmoor Shopping Center by the City of Seal Beach.   “If we only had those sales tax dollars… if we only had those property tax dollars…” are familiar refrains from Rossmoor old-timers and newcomers. alike.

Probably most irritating for the old-timers was the suddenness of the annexation.  In late September 1966,  after almost a year of debate, Rossmoor and Los Alamitos voted to decide if the two communities would merge.  The initiative passed among Los Alamitos voters but Rossmoor turned it down emphatically – by a 2-to-1 margin.  Annexation foes thought the issue was settled and then seven weeks later Rossmoor residents find out Seal Beach was annexing their shopping center.  

But first, a little backstory is necessary.  Rossmoor was developed , from three different parcels of property optioned by developer Ross Cortese from 1955 through early 1958.   The first section — the middle – ran from Kempton Avenue to Orangewood Avenue (if Orangewood ran straight to the county line.)  Cortese purchased this parcel from an Irvine Ranch-related consortium which had purchased it in 1947 from the heirs of Susannah Bixby Bryant.  This purchase also included the land now occupied by St. Hedwig Church and Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church and the Rossmoor Highlands. 

The second parcel was the land between Mainway and Garden Grove Boulevard.  This parcel was owned by the Fred H. Bixby Ranch Company (of the Rancho Los Alamitos).  This purchase could not be finalized until almost early 1958 while the freeway routes were being finalized and surveyed.   

The third parcel was the land north of Orangewood which had been owned by the Bixby Land Company, (the Rancho Los Cerritos Bixbys) but had undergone some property changes in the post-war years.  Cortese eventually secured not only the Rossmoor land, but also the property where Los Alamitos City Hall and Oak School are currently located.

Here is a drawing from the earliest sales brochures.  Note that the shopping center was originally conceived to run between Bradbury and Copa De Oro and from the Boulevard to Montecito.   The area where the condominiums are now was originally conceived as parking.  Also note that the area at the bottom right (present Rossmoor Village and apartments) was conceived as a hospital.  This all changed when the freeway routes were finalized.   

Cortese’s original vision for Rossmoor included a large medical center at the northeast corner of the tract, and a major shopping center, similar to the nearby nationally acclaimed Lakewood Mall.  It is on the earliest drawings – totally occupying the space between Bradbury and St. Cloud, Los Al Blvd to Montecito.   

That original vision also included the land east of Los Alamitos Blvd on which Cortese already had options.  The present Rossmoor Highlands, Target Center and Old Ranch Golf Course would be apartments — except for the southernmost area under the Navy Base take-off zone which would be part of the proposed Del Rey Country Club with two 18-hole golf courses.  

 The first Rossmoor homes went on the market in late 1956. The first homes to be occupied (on Kempton) happened in August 1957, but the middle section had already sold out. The main freeway issues of the Southern section were resolved in early 1957, and the Bixby Ranch Co. conveyed their land to Cortese and his investing partners, the Los Coyotes Land Company. [1]“365 Acres Area Is Sold For $613,000, LA Times, March 3, 1957; “LB Independent Press-Telegram, Jan. 24, 1957: “Real Estate Deals Total $1,867,701,” This latter deal also … Continue reading

The first version of the Rossmoor Center was announced in November 1958 and would comprise 500,000 square feet, two major department stores, a giant super food market, and other retail stores.  It would have space for 5,000 cars. which would mainly enter off Montecito, Bradbury and St. Cloud.  The current Rossmoor Center  Drive entrance would not go through to the main tract – it would only be a feeder to the front parking lot. The architects were Stiles & Robert Clements, a well-known father-son architectural team that designed many well-known stores, schools, and government buildings.

 With all the house construction and sales going great, Cortese moved on to developing the shopping center.  The first design, announced in November 1958, called for a huge octagon-shaped mall with 500,000 square feet of store space.  The focal  point would be a two-acre center courtyard with “display fountains, benches, and other shopping facilities.” It was designed by  Stiles & Robert Clements, an established father-son architectural team that designed many well-known stores, schools, and government buildings     The new Rossmoor Center would serve the area from Lakewood Boulevard to Beach Boulevard, from Carson-Lincoln on the north, south to the coast.  This took into account Long Beach’s desire to have Atherton Avenue connect with Rossmoor via Bostonian, providing a short and direct route to the college and to the Los Altos Shopping center.  But none of this came to fruition.

   Orange County planners strongly opposed this extension, as well as connecting Atherton south to Lampson.  Strongly encouraged by the Rossmoor Homeowners Association, the OC Planners held out for connections at Katella-Willow and Garden Grove Blvd-7th Street.  The final routes of the San Gabriel River Freeway also affected this decision making as well.   
   It’s also possible the shopping center developers encountered a lack of enthusiasm from big department stores –such as Sears.  All the surrounding open space (the bases, the freeways, El Dorado Park, and the Race Track) translated to a lack of potential customers to corporate execs.  [Even now, 60 years later, most big box retail execs are still wary of the Rossmoor market.]   
    It’s also possible Cortese was distracted by his Leisure World planning and that the economic climate of late 1959 and early 1960 caused him (and his investors) to rein in ambitions. They would not have access to the East Long Beach market as first thought, and then there was even closer competition.  Despite vigorous protests from Cortese, the new city of Los Alamitos approved the construction of the Thriftimart Shopping Center (now the Von’s Center).   

   The plans for the huge octagonal-shaped Rossmoor Shopping Center were scrapped and new plans were downsized.  In July 1960, a revised plan called for the development of one section at a time.  This one was designed by an even more respected firm of Burke, Kober & Nicolais – whose two senior partners (Eugene Burke, and Charles Kober) had literally written the industry’s “bible” for shopping center design.   

  In April 1961 Food Giant became the first store to open its doors to customers.  (It was located roughly where the Toys R Us building is now).  Close behind were Thrifty Drug Store (September 1961), S.H. Kress Variety Store (December). The Rossmoor Inn and Rossmoor Bowl opened in April 1962, and the circular savings Union Federal Savings & Loan opened in 1963.  The Boston store’s opening in October 1963 was the last major store opening, although the opening of the Fox Theater [at the current F&M site] in summer 1964 was a big deal.

Cortese’s encountered other challenges as well.  The medical center (present Rossmoor Village) was supposed to include medical offices and a hospital.  But local educators wanted the spot for a middle school site; Cortese offered the site where St. Hedwig is now — but OC planners said public schools could not be placed there.  The Anaheim District then requested a property north of Katella [the current Oak Middle School site].  That resolved, the Cortese group and some local doctors, formed the Rossmoor Medical Group,  agreed to make it a combination retail and medical area, with construction of the first unit — the present Fish Company Building — commencing in March 1962.[2]interview with Dr. Seymour Allan, 50th anniversary of Los Al Med Center, Event-News-Enterprise, Nov. 14, 2018, p.8; Independent Press-Telegram, March 4, 1962, page60, “Building of Medical Unit … Continue reading  But eventually, the collective group of doctors and investors thought Cortese was asking too much money for a hospital site.  So the medical center element slowly faded away.  

But Cortese was still going strong with his Leisure World projects.  So, over the next four years, while the southern half of the Rossmoor Shopping Center was built piecemeal. Cortese was also systematically unloading his land east of the boulevard.  When planners wouldn’t let it be used as a public middle school site, he gave the SE corner lots at Orangewood and Los Alamitos to St. Hedwig Church (1960).  Then he turned over the lots for the Rossmoor Highlands (1961) and Good Shepherd Church (1962).  He released his options on the Bixby Ranch Company land (now the Target homes, the Old Ranch Shopping Center and Golf Course, and the area by Spaghettini’s.
     By 1964 the expanding war in Vietnam began affected the housing industry and Cortese, overextended after purchasing land for many future Leisure World developments, began to sell off properties.  One of the first was the shopping center area which became the Rossmoor Townhomes which were built in 1964.  By May 1965 Cortese had sold off all his interest in the remaining undeveloped Rossmoor Center land. This would eventually lead to the new owners allowing the land to be annexed by Seal Beach in return for getting the right to build apartments and condos on — along with some forward funded water and sewer lines.     


By this time  Cortese had completed construction in Rossmoor as well as Leisure World.  The success of the latter caused him to change his focus to the construction of retirement communities across the nation and he went on a spending spree — purchasing properties in Santa Barbara, Chicago, New Jersey, Maryland and a couple sites in Europe.  This was one reason he sold the land that became the Rossmoor Townhomes and the property that was now called Rossmoor Village where Bridgestone Tires, Katella Deli and Park Pantry established businesses.

By mid-1966 the shopping center partners were aware that there was not a great demand for more stores at their shopping center.  Part of this was due to a rapidly growing nationwide credit crunch.  The expenses of the federal government’s Great Society programs and the rapid build-up of the Vietnam War ended diverted capital from private industries to government programs. Banks found themselves in a cash flow problem and called in loans.  Suddenly, developers across the nation were scrambling to pay off loans.  Ross Cortese was no exception.  He defaulted on one loan to Metropolitan Life, and to avoid more he started selling off properties — Santa Barbara, Walnut Creek, Chicago, New Jersey and his share of the still undeveloped land of the Rossmoor Center. This latter he sold to his long-time partners, the Los Coyotes land Company.  But by this time, the controlling partner in this venture was Zygman (Zyg) Taube.

Taube didn’t want to wait until the retail market returned. He wanted to create income now — and at the time, with the current state of the economy, the best way for that seemed to be multi-family residential units — apartments.

    When the Los Alamitos-Rossmoor merge failed in September 1966, Taube approached Los Alamitos officials.  He wanted a return on his investments.  He wanted to build apartments.  Since Rossmoor was not incorporated and thus not empowered to make any decisions, and homeowners had made it clear they did not want apartments in the area,  it was useless to deal with them.  If Taube agreed to be annexed by Los Alamitos, would they forward fund investments in water and sewer lines?  
   The Los Alamitos officials, still smarting from the recent rejection by Rossmoor but still hopeful of a future relationship, declined.[3]1983 interview with former city council members Jim Bell and Chuck Long, Los Al TV series, “History of Los Alamitos.” 
   Undeterred, Taube turned to Seal Beach, whose young city manager, Lee Risner, was aggressively continuing the expansion of their city boundaries. [4]2012 interview with then assistant city manager Dennis Courtemarche, who handled much of the negotiations with Taube. 
   In 1961 the city annexed that part of the Hellman Ranch that became Leisure World.  A few years later they annexed the Navy Weapons Station.  In 1964 they jumped the freeway to annex the Bixby Ranch Company land that would become College Park East and West, the Old Ranch Golf Course, and the future Old Ranch Town Center, the Bixby Office Park and all of [then] Los Alamitos Boulevard south of Bradbury.

When Los Alamitos officials declined in October 1966 to deal with Taube and the Los Coyotes Land Company, he turned to Risner and Seal Beach to whom they had already been talking.  Within a few weeks, they had worked out a deal.  On November 14, 1966, Rossmoor residents were stunned to learn that the owners of the Rossmoor Shopping Center had agreed to be annexed by Seal Beach.  Since the affected area had no residents, it only needed the property owner’s consent. 

Rossmoor leaders immediately objected and started to file legal blocks. So did Los Alamitos.  But a community open house at Rossmoor School only drew 150 people out of  over 6,000 elgible voters residents at the time.  

A few weeks later, new OC Supervisor Dave Baker, a member of the LAFCO Committee which would rule on the annexation, told Rossmoor homeowners and Los Alamitos officials that the onus would be on them to prove that the annexation of uninhabited land will be “detrimental for them.” To answer Los Alamitos objections that the annexation would cause an overlap of water and sewer districts (as well the school district), Seal Beach’s Lee Risner noted that there is already an overlap with the College Park and Old Ranch Golf Course areas. Plus, Seal Beach already owns the boulevard land that fronts the shopping center.  

A week later the annexation was approved by the LAFCO Committee by a 3-2 vote and by then all had accepted it as a fait accompli.   Officially the annexation did not legally take effect until March 6, 1967, but it did so at a Seal Beach Council meeting that had no protestors.


To this day, Rossmoor residents occasional complain about the loss of sales tax and property tax to the community, but, in reality, 80% of the property tax goes to schools so that’s not lost. Nor are the property tax revenues that go to the Orange County Library, the Fire Authority, the flood control district, and other agencies.  As for the sales tax, the majority of this money goes to the police and road maintenance.  Rossmoor definitely benefits from police at the two shopping centers because during a Part I call (high priority) Seal Beach officers are as likely as an OC Sheriff or Los Al policeman to be the first responder on the scene.  Plus, we all benefit from the road improvements to the roads north of the freeway.  

Yes, we lost the Center, and we lost some control and influence over how the annexed properties are developed. But in truth, we didn’t lose much.  Rossmoor revenues are very important to Seal Beach so their government is very responsive to Rossmoor concerns, and financially we didn’t lose that much.  Probably no more than we would have lost if revenues would have gone to Orange County  where we don’t get all the money we pay already. 




1 “365 Acres Area Is Sold For $613,000, LA Times, March 3, 1957; “LB Independent Press-Telegram, Jan. 24, 1957: “Real Estate Deals Total $1,867,701,” This latter deal also included an option for 229 acres east of Los Alamitos Blvd for a “swank golf course and country club.”  This was the aforementioned proposed Del Rey Country Club (The Course of Kings) which failed to get enough interest to be built at the time.  Old Ranch Golf Club was later built on the same site.
2 interview with Dr. Seymour Allan, 50th anniversary of Los Al Med Center, Event-News-Enterprise, Nov. 14, 2018, p.8; Independent Press-Telegram, March 4, 1962, page60, “Building of Medical Unit Is Underway”
3 1983 interview with former city council members Jim Bell and Chuck Long, Los Al TV series, “History of Los Alamitos.”
4 2012 interview with then assistant city manager Dennis Courtemarche, who handled much of the negotiations with Taube.

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