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Leisure World Developer Ross W. 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 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 Seal Beach and Laguna Hills and in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Arizona and elsewhere had become home to 40,000 middle-aged and elderly people. Mostly they are retirees who have opted to live among neighbors their own age but with the option of pursuing independent lifestyles.

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

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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.

Wednesday, flags flew at half-staff at several of the seven Leisure Worlds he built, including those in Laguna Hills and Seal Beach.

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.

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

During the 1950s, he developed a walled community next to Los Alamitos that 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.

March said Cortese began to think of building segregated communities for retired people following a conversation with James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, leader of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, about the medical needs of seniors. “He realized there was a great need to give them a healthy and active lifestyle, both mentally and physically,” March said.

His first Leisure Worlds offered a medical package that was later replaced by Medicare.

The Seal Beach project had only two security gates for about 10,000 people. 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 system of buses to nearby shopping.

Residents of the Leisure World communities must be over the age of 52.

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The Laguna Hills community is served by a newspaper and its own television station. Residents there have developed a reputation for political activism both within and beyond the community’s walls. With a high rate of Republican voter registrations, it has become a required stop for countywide and statewide Republican candidates.

Later in Cortese’s career 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.

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 water 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 considerably. But he still bristled when asked to answer recurring complaints that he had built a series of glorified ghettos for older people.

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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 the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC which he helped found in 1964 with a gift of $250,000. Edward L. Schneider, dean of the center, said Cortese was a man of “great vision” who “created options” for the elderly.

Cortese “derived great pleasure in creating an active lifestyle for elderly people,” his colleague March said. People have come from all over the country and the world to live in Cortese’s developments, March said.

Cortese once explored the possibility of developing Leisure Worlds outside the United States but was discouraged by cultural differences, March said. “In Europe and Asia, the grandparents still live with the children. Although they all said that the day is coming that they too will live separately, it’s a hard cultural bond to break at this point,” March said.

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

Before illness forced him to stop working in July, he had been seeking to develop the Rossmoor Business Park in Laguna Hills and was planning a new Leisure World in La Quinta in Riverside County, said his secretary, Nancy Wisniewski.

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.

A Rosary will be said 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.


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