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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Teed Off: What’s Best Use for Seattle’s Public Golf Courses?

A recently 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 Seattle-based 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 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 park land 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 best referred to as urbanists. While urbanists argue for greater urban density to address critical issues like climate change and traffic congestion, the second group, here called park advocates, argues for preserving a sense of neighborhood communities; their critics call them NIMBYs, their supporters refer to them as park and community advocates.

One urbanist approach is presented by Nolan Gray in CityLab in an article Dead Golf Courses Are the New NIMBY Battlefield.  Since golf’s popularity is waning, he asks, why not develop their vast amounts of underutilized land? 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 a mixed-use retail, office, and hotel development.”

Another writer, Mike Eliason, in his Urbanist article Unlike Seattle, Golf Really Is Dying, focuses specifically how golf is dying in Seattle. He notes that “golf green fees are falling like a rock, 16% in just two years” from 2015 to 2017. But making statistical projections from just a couple of years is fool’s gold. Looking at those same two 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, who 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 park land to non-park uses since it would be inconsistent with Seattle’s livability goals, and such a move 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 park land and using it for other purposes, unless it is replaced with park land 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 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 park land.

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. Again, I-42 did not play a significant role. Neither the Mayor nor her office staff met with Lund 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 sport 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.

Part of that approach has to take into consideration how the courses are managed. Premier Golf Centers LLC operates the golf courses for the City through a management agreement authorized by the City Council. Previously a not-for-profit corporation, Municipal Golf of Seattle (MGS)  operated them, but the city determined that they were unable to successfully manage the courses. Before being released by the City in 2003, they had made substantial capital improvements to the courses, incurring approximately $3 million in debt. Premier then took over management after the Parks Department solicited proposals. The grounds maintenance work is performed by Parks golf employees, as it had been under MGS. Although critics consider this is as possible wasteful double management, the Lund Report did not explore that possibility. It’s not clear who prioritizes the Park employee’s maintenance work. This could be an area of further clarification and possible change in designing future use of the golf courses.

Whatever management model is used, programs like the national nonprofit First Tee youth program at Jefferson and Jackson that teach children of low income and minority families how to golf, must continue. And 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 multi-functional activities.

The services provided include 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 golfers. The study also showed that cooperation with the surrounding communities is a critical factor for achieving multi-functionality. Most importantly it found that “a multi-functional 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 factor: 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 in use in 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, just as our other park programs are not required to do. This was the first of the 35 recommendations that were made in the Lund Report, to delete the policy obligating golf to return 3% or 5% of their budget to this fund.

The approaching Fall budget process 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 the context of 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.

Image: West Seattle Golf Course

Nick Licata
Nick Licata was a Seattle City Councilmember for 18 years, the Nation named him as Progressive Municipal Official of the Year and he is the Founding Board Chair of Local Progress, a network of a thousand urban progressive elected officials. He authored Becoming a Citizen Activist, www.becomingacitizenactivist.org

1 COMMENT

  1. It’s tempting to agree with Licata about mixed-use solution for golf courses, but I fear it would be a slippery slope to all kind of other desired uses: education, environmental camps, frisbee matches, picnics, dog runs. Better to leave them as golf courses (maybe closing one, such as Interbay). One thing to keep in mind: public golf courses are affordable and used by people from all walks of life. And they are conducive to meeting strangers and having long talks. Multi-use places like Seattle Center are mish-mashes, satisfying few.

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