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Leisure World Builder Ross Cortese Dies at 74

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ross W. Cortese, the onetime fruit-stand peddler whose vision of active havens for the aging led to a nationwide series of planned communities that he called Leisure World, has died of the complications of abdominal surgery.

A company spokesman said Wednesday that Cortese died Tuesday at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange. Cortese was 74 and had undergone unrelated cancer surgery in July, said William V. March, a longtime friend and colleague.

At his death, the 24,000 retirement units Cortese had constructed at two Orange County sites, and in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Arizona and elsewhere, had become home to 40,000 middle-aged and elderly people. Mostly they were retirees who opted to live among neighbors their own age but with the option of pursuing independent lifestyles.

Although Cortese had never lived in one himself (“I would feel I were interfering,” he told The Times in 1989) his mother and mother-in-law had lived in them.

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With the other planned communities he constructed across the country, he was credited at his death with building a total of 35,000 residences.

Born in East Palestine, Ohio, Cortese came to California with his family as a boy, and grew up in Long Beach and Glendale. He dropped out of high school in Glendale to run a fruit and vegetable stand while learning the real estate business from his father.

While still in his early 20s, Cortese began to buy “fixer-upper” property and sell it at a profit. He soon was using the money to build modest single-family homes and then larger developments.

One of his most successful sales lures was building a completed model home that prospective buyers could examine while the rest of a planned community was still under construction a block or two away.

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During the 1950s, he developed a walled community near Los Alamitos he called Rossmoor. He sold 3,800 homes there in three years.

In 1961, he opened the first of his planned retirement projects on 533 acres in Seal Beach. Although many warned him that older people would not be attracted to communities that cut them off from the rest of the population, Cortese persisted and the 6,500-unit Seal Beach project, marketed by Cortese’s Rossmoor Corp., quickly sold out.

“It just took off like a bomb,” he said in 1989.

The Seal Beach project had only two security gates for about 10,000 people who had to be over the age of 52. Cortese’s next community--Rossmoor-Leisure World in Laguna Hills--was to boast 12,736 units (with such options as fireplaces and wet bars) and 14 gates. It become home to 20,000 buyers who used a fare-free bus system to nearby shopping.

Later came 4,000 homes in Olney, Md., 3,100 in Walnut Creek, Calif., and 362 in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a scattering of others on the East Coast.

All had one common thread--they were managed by the homeowners, who through their associations maintained the clubhouses, swimming pools, shuffleboard courts, lawn bowling greens, tennis courts and, of course, golf courses.

(Cortese’s corporation was involved in any resales of the units, however.)

Some of his projects proved more difficult than others.

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In Laguna Hills, where the first 1,018 units quickly sold out in 1964, Cortese had to provide his own water service, forming a district that bought it from the Metropolitan Water District. He also had to create a private sanitation district because most of the other homes in the area were on septic tanks.

By the time the last of those units had been sold, Cortese had become a multimillionaire who presided over his empire from a modest office overlooking one of the two professional-size golf courses in Laguna Hills. In 1966, Practical Builder magazine named him “the biggest home builder in the United States.”

Cortese, who also built shopping centers and office buildings, had a reputation for volatility as a younger man but in 1989, at the age of 72, he said he had mellowed. But he still bristled when asked to answer recurring complaints that he had built a series of glorified ghettos for older people.

Anyone who believes that is “living in the Dark Ages,” he said, citing the availability of sports, arts, companionship and medical care in each of his projects.

(A personal pet project was a gerontology unit at USC, which he funded.)

Most recently he had constructed the Rossmoor Regency in Laguna Hills, a retirement hotel with 192 units. It was, he said, a response to surveys that showed that a growing number of retirees preferred to rent rather than buy.

In 1983, he was elected to the Housing Hall of Fame by the National Assn. of Home Builders.

Survivors include his wife, Ellie, two daughters and two stepsons.

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Rosary will be recited at 5 p.m. Friday at Fairhaven Mortuary in Santa Ana. Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.

MORE OBITUARIES: B8


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