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His (Leisure) World and Welcome to It : Despite the Doubters, Developer Ross Cortese Knew His Idea Was No Dud

Times Staff Writer: Pat Gerber is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

By the time housing developer Ross W. Cortese opened Leisure World in Laguna Hills nearly a quarter of a century ago, he had already tested his pioneering idea for a walled, planned retirement community on a much smaller scale in Seal Beach.

Cortese knew he was taking a chance with the 533-acre Seal Beach project, which he said was the largest cooperative housing project in the country when it opened in 1962. Some critics warned that old people would be shunted into housing resembling rabbit hutches and cut off from the rest of the world.

But the Seal Beach project, which was marketed nationwide by Cortese’s Rossmoor Corp., quickly sold out.

“The idea was so beautiful that we put it to work. It just took off like a bomb,” he said in a recent interview at his office in Laguna Hills.

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Cortese wasted no time looking south to Laguna Hills to capitalize on the idea.

And expand he did. Although the Seal Beach community was planned for a population of about 8,000 and had only two security gates, Leisure World, Laguna Hills--valued at the time of its opening at $375 million--would have 14 gates and be home to 21,000.

The Laguna Hills location proved ideal, Cortese said. It was accessible--close to the junction of Interstates 5 and 405--and was surrounded by rolling hillsides populated primarily by cows. It was far from the congested freeways of Los Angeles, yet close to cool ocean breezes on hot days.

In 1962, Cortese bought 3,568 acres of the former Moulton Ranch property in Laguna Hills for $2,300 an acre, said Dick Lewis, a public relations executive who has been a spokesman of Cortese’s for 25 years. (Comparable land today sells for about $500,000 an acre.) On this land, Cortese would build a single community with 12,700 homes, as well as clubhouses, swimming pools, shuffleboard courts, lawn bowling greens, a stable, tennis courts, a library, a garden center and, of course, golf courses.

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Because there was no water, Cortese had to provide it, so his company formed a private water district and imported water purchased from the Metropolitan Water District. He also had to create a private sanitation district because none existed; most of the homes in the area were on septic tanks.

People lined up by the hundreds to buy the first 1,018 Leisure World manors that went on the market in April, 1964, and quickly sold out.

Seventeen years later, Leisure World was built out, so Cortese decided to liquidate Rossmoor Corp. But the company he subsequently formed, RCC Inc., has a division involved in resales of Leisure World units.

As president and chief executive officer of RCC Inc., Cortese has focused his attention on completing the Leisure World community in Silver Spring, Md., and on building the Rossmoor Regency in Laguna Hills. The 93-unit Regency, which opened in November, is modeled after a five-star resort hotel. Aimed at those 65 and older, the Regency offers a full range of amenities and services--residents can even be chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce limousine.

Sitting in his office on the border of one of two professional-size golf courses at Leisure World, Cortese, a 72-year-old multimillionaire, pronounced his 25-year-old experiment a success.

His modest office is scaled down from the image of a younger Cortese who used to travel among his housing developments in a helicopter. The converted warehouse is sandwiched in between a cluster of one-story aluminum-sided buildings, which serve as the maintenance yard for Leisure World. But remnants of earlier days, when he earned a reputation as having a taste for luxury, are evident--Cortese wears a finely cut business suit with a silk handkerchief in his pocket.

A sleek, black board-room table fills what serves as the main meeting room in his office. Cortese moved here a couple of years ago with a small band of employees who remained after he liquidated Rossmoor Corp. But these quarters are temporary--plans are under way for a new headquarters building in Irvine.

There is no evidence today of Cortese’s legendary temper, which was known to flare up during business meetings. Lewis notes that Cortese has “mellowed” with age. Cortese’s reserved, old-world, polite demeanor shows only the slightest sign of being ruffled when it is mentioned that some detractors of Leisure World consider it a glorified ghetto for old people.

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Anyone who believes that is “living in the Dark Ages,” Cortese said.

Where else, he argues, can the elderly have their needs filled so conveniently? Where else can they participate in sports or arts and crafts or find company in social clubs?

Those who have done business with Cortese know he can be a shrewd negotiator. “He drives a tough bargain,” said resident Al Hanson, a former member of the Golden Rain Foundation, Leisure World’s main governing board.

As a representative of residents, Hanson used to work with Cortese on development issues. Once during a public meeting, the two argued over a community water issue. By the time Hanson arrived home from the meeting, Cortese had left a message demanding to see him. “He yelled and screamed,” Hanson remembered, chuckling.

They settled the issue, however. “We ended up laughing about it,” Hanson said. “He’s a great guy. I like him.” Hanson described Cortese as “a man of his word” whose handshake is more binding than any written contract. “If Ross said, ‘I’ll do it,’ he did it.”

Cortese has never lived in Leisure World, although his mother lives there and so did his mother-in-law until her recent death. A private man who eschews politics and socializing, Cortese said he would feel as if he were “interfering” if he did so.

Instead, he lives in the exclusive Lemon Heights neighborhood of Tustin.

Cortese grew up in Long Beach and Glendale. He dropped out of high school to run a fruit-and-vegetable stand and soon made a business of buying and selling fruit stands. Meanwhile, his father, a real estate salesman, taught him about selling houses. Cortese would buy a few, fix them up, then sell them for a profit. He quickly branched into building modest single-family homes, gradually working toward larger developments.

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Cortese is known as a perfectionist. His all-encompassing control over projects is a hallmark of his business style. It was his idea to use a huge metal globe as a signature for the seven Leisure World developments stretching from Laguna Hills to New Jersey to Florida.

He was a pioneer home builder long before he built his first Leisure World. During the late 1950s, when most developers were putting together housing tracts piecemeal, Cortese built entire communities, such as the walled development of 3,600 single-family homes that make up Rossmoor in Los Alamitos. He marketed them by letting people tour fully furnished model homes--then a new concept--rather than half-finished homes.

Once Cortese built his communities, however, he didn’t linger. He embarked on new projects.

“I’ve made it a policy not to get engaged in any of the issues” of the communities, he said, declining to comment on the controversial Laguna Hills cityhood issue.

He would rather talk about his current projects--his new Irvine headquarters or plans for the first overseas Leisure World. He won’t disclose the country or the parties with whom he is negotiating, but notes proudly: They contacted him .


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