A growing chorus is calling on the City of Seattle to build social housing atop some of the 528 acres of public land that we currently dedicate to golf courses and operate at a loss. But already that movement has attracted some illustrious detractors. Former Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata posted a takedown on Sunday proposing further subsidizing golf to keep the courses afloat and he chastised urbanists for questioning golf-hegemony.
“Another writer Mike Eliason in his article Unlike Seattle, Golf Really Is Dying, which appears in [The Urbanist], focuses specifically how golf is dying in Seattle,” Licata wrote. “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.”
The old “Lefty” on the city council of the oughts then proceeded to take some liberties with his own statistical analysis.
“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,” Licata wrote. “Both downward trends were due to an excessive rainy 2017.”
Eliason took to Twitter to point out Licata’s weather misdirection. Although the winter of 2017 was particularly wet, the summer (the prime golfing season) was remarkably sunny and dry–even setting a record for 55 straight dry days, Eliason said. Even with favorable summer weather, golf declined in 2017. And, meanwhile, whatever its struggles in 2017, biking rates shot up 12% in 2018 and continue to rise.
Time will tell if golf managed such a dramatic turnaround in 2018, but it seems highly unlikely since the downward trend for golfing has been more persistent that one bad weather year. Plus, Trump’s well-known obsession with playing golf and cheating at it isn’t exactly helping the sport’s popularity.
As we face a climate emergency, gaping wealth inequality, and an affordable housing crisis, treating the traditional sport of the aristocracy as sacrosanct doesn’t seem like a viable option. Plus, droughts associated with our climate emergency will make golf courses even thirstier and more costly to maintain as time goes on. While the ‘golf is actually somehow my priority’ crowd are trying to greenwash golf courses as eco-friendly, they are actually bad for the environment, unlike real parks.
One thing Licata generally got right is that urbanists are pretty interested in improving land use on golf courses. Rachael Ludwick first kicked around the idea in January 2018 as a way to address the housing emergency. Natalie Bicknell wrote about Share The Cities, a group seeking to lay the community engagement ground work in North Seattle and envision options for the light rail station areas. Recently with the belated release of the City-commissioned study of public golf courses interest has picked up. Mike Eliason penned the aforementioned “Golf Is Dying” piece, Michael Maddux supported repurposing some acreage, and several city council candidates have endorsed the idea.
But urbanists also value parks and green space, so Licata pitting urbanists and “park advocates” as separate factions diametrically opposed on this issue of adaptive reuse of public golf courses rubbed some the wrong way.
“Share The Cities has held a series of events and community canvasses over the last year, most recently a three-hour Open Space Visioning and Golf Course Analysis event,” said Laura Loe, founder of Share The Cities. “We invite Nick Licata to watch the livestream of that before making assumptions about urbanists, our views on open green space and golf courses, and our vision for the future of Seattle.”
Of course the coalition interested in studying adaptive reuse of golf courses is broader than only self-proclaimed urbanists. Plenty of people think golf is boring and wasteful without ascribing to an urbanist ideology.
While Licata and Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat were acting like they were revealing something advocates didn’t know when they cited Initiative 42, Ludwick brought up this point in her 2018 piece. Licata framed Initiative 42 as proof that golf courses couldn’t be converted because they count as park land and the initiative barred park land from reuse for another purpose unless it is replaced in a one-for-one fashion. Laws are made to be changed though–golf courses need not continue to be mislabeled public parks when they’re reserved for paying customers. Or another option would be a land swap to spread parks more equitably through the city as portions of golf courses are converted to social housing.
Licata, who has been out of office since 2015, claimed to still have his finger on the pulse of the city as he dismissed these alternatives.
“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,” he wrote. “You could bet that if the council voted now to overturn I-42, the voters would release those councilmembers from their duties.”
On the contrary, I expect most people would commend a city council that converts a publicly-owned golf course that most of their constituents do not use (due to cost or disinterest) into a high-quality, highly-used public park and much needed social housing. Recent polling has confirmed affordable housing is a top priority in this city. Golf clearly isn’t for most people.
Without fees-to-play or the barrier to entry of a stodgy old sport with a steep learning curve, a history of exclusion, and expensive equipment, many more people will use a public park than a publicly-subsidized golf course. The park would host sports with rising rather than dwindling popularity, like soccer. And unlike many great parks in Seattle, this one could be next to a dense mixed-income neighborhood rather than detached single-family homes, many of them million-dollar mansions.
And of course Nick Licata never mentioned light rail, but the impetus for converting Jackson Park Golf Course in particular to a multi-use park and social housing is the arrival of light rail in 2024. With the addition of a station at N 130th St, Jackson Park will border two light rail stations at its northwest and southwest corner. At 160 acres and 27 holes, it’s the most sprawling course of them all.
Light rail will arrive to the doorstep of West Seattle Golf Course in 2030, making it another contender for reuse. One option is convert the 18-hole golf course to a 12-hole course, allowing the northern edge near the Avalon station to become housing. It just so happens the last six holes are the northernmost, bordering Genessee Street. One solution golf experts are kicking around for saving the sport has been to offer shorter courses anyway since playing a full 18 holes is such a time consuming endeavor–plus larger courses are more expensive to maintain.
Meanwhile, Interbay Golf Center is slated to get an adjacent light rail station in 2035 with Ballard Link. However, as Eliason pointed out, Interbay is the only of Seattle’s four public golf facilities that appears profitable, and anyway it’s a smaller site that is built on an old landfill–and also happens to be at risk of both liquefaction in a big earthquake or inundation from sea-level rise. Not exactly a prime site to build up.
Jefferson Park Golf Course isn’t scheduled to get new light rail, but it’s close-ish to existing light rail. The clubhouse is about a mile from Beacon Hill Station and some of the course is closer. Shaving off the closer corners of the course is an option here, but so is keeping it as Seattle’s 18-hole course as West Seattle is downsized and Jackson Park is converted.
Let’s not forget that there are dozens of golf courses throughout the region. We don’t have to pretend converting a course or two in Seattle is really going to hinder access. We may be doing the industry a favor by reducing the oversupply of golf courses.
We can balance our need for affordable housing and truly public park space with the desire to offer the luxury of golf on public land. With 528 acres to play with, doing both is clearly an option. So let’s keep the conversation going.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.