Public Golf Courses can benefit the public without being eliminated

Written by: Nick Licata


A recent released city study and comments from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan have stirred up a conversation about whether our public golf courses should be eliminated. 

The City of Seattle Parks Department commissioned Lund Consulting to prepare a strategic business plan to guide the future of Seattle’s public golf courses. Justifying the report, Mayor Durkan said, “It would be a breach of our duty to the people of Seattle not to be really looking at what is the best use of those golf courses, from everything to continuing as golf courses, to finding a way to use part of them as parks, to use part of them for affordable housing.”

What followed was an intense debate between those who believe that parkland devoted to golf courses should be used for other purposes to benefit the public and those who believe the golf courses already serve a public purpose.

The first group is generally referred to as urbanists. The second group doesn’t have as clean a handle to describe their vision. While urbanists argue for greater urban density to address critical issues like climate change and traffic congestion, the second group argues for preserving a sense of neighborhood communities; their critics call them NIMBYs, their supporters refer to them as park and community advocates. Let’s just refer to the two sides as urbanists versus park advocates, albeit those titles do not capture the full extent of their concerns.

One urbanist approach is presented by Nolan Gray in City Lab in an article  Dead Golf Courses Are the New NIMBY Battlefield.  Since golf’s popularity is waning, he asks why can’t their vast amounts of underutilized land be developed? He notes that “In a Kansas City suburb, one golf course is set to be converted into an industrial park. On another golf course in suburban Jacksonville, plans are underway for mixed-use retail, office, and hotel development.” But he also suggests even other park users would be possible.

Another writer Mike Eliason in his article Unlike Seattle, Golf Really Is Dying, which appears in the Urbanist, focuses specifically on how golf is dying in Seattle. He notes that “golf green fees are falling like a rock, 16% in just two years” from 2015 to2017. But making statistical projections from just a couple of years is fool’s gold. Looking at those same 2 years, Seattle Times columnist Gene Balk writes in his piece, Bike Commuting is Down in Seattle, that the number of bike commuters who live in Seattle fell 26%, 16,000 to 12,000. Both downward trends were due to an excessive rainy 2017.

The park advocates’ position was probably best represented by a letter to the mayor by three former park superintendents, Kenneth Bounds, Holly Miller, and David Towne. As supporters of the mayor and of housing affordability, they made two suggestions. First, the city should support municipal golf courses’ non-operating costs from general tax support if the golfing fees fall short. Second, the mayor should not propose converting parkland to non-park uses since it would be inconsistent with Seattle’s livability goals, which would discourage businesses and people to locate, live and work in Seattle.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat in a column on Golf Courses vs Housing regarding I-42 pointed out, with the help of citizen activists like Joyce Moty, that the city has a law that does not allow taking parkland and using it for other purposes unless it is replaced with the parkland of similar quality and size. In other words, as attractive as building affordable housing would be on golf courses, the cost of obtaining the land, since it would have to be replaced by purchasing land elsewhere, would make it non-affordable. And the city does not currently own large parcels of land to give to the Parks Department without having to pay market value, as it would have to do with the utility-owned property.

I’m familiar with Initiative 42, which the council unanimously adopted as Ordinance 118477, the year before I got on the city council. As the parks committee chair during my first term, citizens often reminded me of how it applied to attempts to sell parkland.

Although the council could overturn the initiative by a vote, that is not likely. The council unanimously adopted the initiative before it got on the ballot because they knew voters would pass it overwhelmingly. You could bet that if the council voted now to overturn I-42, the voters would release those councilmembers from their duties.

What caught my attention was that the Lund report only mentioned I-42 twice, and in a very inconsequential fashion: as part of park history and as a condition to take into account with regards to future changes. Neither citation was more than a line or two. I asked Kjris Lund, who wrote the report why that was. She told me that the city directed the report’s focus to be on the economics of the golf courses. She would have gladly dived into how I-42 could be addressed, but that was never intended by the city to be the focus.

The Parks Department also did not raise I-42 as a significant issue after the report came out.  Lund did meet with city department staff when her final draft came out and discussed the report’s major recommendations and findings. But I-42 did not play any significant role. And, neither the Mayor nor her office staff met with her after the report was released, although that could still happen.

So how come affordable housing has been mentioned when it appears that it was not studied as a replacement for the golf courses? My guess is that the mayor suggested providing affordable housing within parks as an idea rather than as a serious proposal.
The media then picked it up and amplified the concern of residents and park users. This approach does not lead to systemic changes. Rather, it makes a good point and stirs the pot, but doesn’t deliver a meal.

There is another report that is to be released analyzing the golf courses, but its scope is similar to the first one, in that it focuses on revenue, not on public services that could be better provided. This is a blind spot that results from city leaders so focused on balancing a budget, that they forget that their other mission is to provide good public services. That is part of the problem with the urbanists’ perspective.

For many of the urbanists, the golf courses 528 acres could be put to better use. The combined space of Seattle’s four golf courses is nearly as big as Seattle’s Discovery Park, or nearly 8 times the size of Seattle Center. But those comparisons are misleading. Discovery Park is designed to preserve a natural setting for passive use, not for active sports use. The Seattle Center is not park property, its function is to entertain and to produce revenue.

However, it’s not too late to explore how to best use the golf courses. While the national nonprofit First Tee youth program at Jefferson and Jackson teach children of low income and minority families how to golf, more needs to be done to open up the golf courses to the public. The Lund report’s Chapter 5 addresses this issue by describing a study of how seven Nordic and one Dutch golf course have accommodated multifunctional activities.

The services provided included conserving nature while still making the courses available to the public and creating areas for recreation and outdoor activities for a number of groups other than golf players. The study also showed that cooperation with the surrounding communities is a critical factor for achieving multifunctionality. Most importantly it found that “a multifunctional approach can be profitable for golf clubs while also strengthening their place and benefit in society through work on the environment and sustainable development.”

A key understanding of applying a multifunctional activity approach is that these activities do not need to occur simultaneously; they may be limited to seasons or occur at different times of the day. These practices are not limited to Scandinavia. The Old Course at St Andrews Scotland is an example of a revered course being made available to non-golfers.

What is missing from the public discussion right now, is how to begin exploring how golf courses are being used in other places that address the concerns that have been raised by Seattle’s users and residents. That needs to happen, and it was not directly asked of the consultants who are producing the golf studies. The mayor and the council could follow up on the last recommendation made in the Lund Report to conduct a risk analysis to allow non-golfers to use the golf courses at certain days and times.

The first step in that process is to recognize that parks, all parks, including golf courses, are there to provide a public benefit first and a revenue stream second. That may mean no longer expecting our municipal golf courses to carry an additional burden of contributing to the Park Fund to recover capital costs, one that our other park programs are not required to do so. This was the first of the 35 recommendations that were made in the Lund Report, delete the policy obligating golf to return 3% or 5% of their budget to this fund.

The approaching budget process, which will begin with the Mayor presenting the budget to the council in September is the perfect opportunity to devote funds to begin a new approach to using our golf courses, one that retains them and expands their use. It must happen in an atmosphere of cooperation in finding a way to meet the first recommendation of the Lund Report, which was to commit to golf as a recreational program offered by the City on par with other recreational offerings.

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