Seattle can house 35,000 people on Jackson Park Golf Course by building on 60 acres of fairway and converting the remaining 100 forested acres to public park space.

By the year 2025, you will be able to take a 15-minute train ride from Downtown Seattle to a stop adjacent to 160 acres of publicly-owned land. There is no housing here, no shops, no roads, and the property is operating in the red. I’m talking about Jackson Park Municipal Golf Course. Golf participation isn’t just down in Seattle, it’s down nationwide. Whether it’s the time commitment, or the high cost it takes just to buy equipment, golf is bleeding participants and city money and Seattle has yet to come to grips with this reality.

The City of Seattle has begun to study what to do with excess publicly-owned property. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has brilliantly proposed leveraging surplus public properties for dense affordable housing. With the land already acquired, the city saves precious housing funds and gets to decide how it’s developed.

Seattle Must Leverage Its Assets

Golf participation on our municipal courses is in freefall, but Seattle’s population continues to rise. While we have a surplus in publicly-owned land, we have a shortage in housing. So, what if instead of hopping off the light rail and seeing a golf course, we enter a dense, vibrant walkable neighborhood free of car dependency?  

Graphic by Ryan DiRaimo showing Barcelona style apartment block layout for the golf course..
Two future light rail stops will open by the year 2025. With 61% of the site uncovered by trees, a quality designed neighborhood could house a dense population and leave swaths of existing trees and parks open to the public (image by author)

Imagine living in a community where instead of the 15-minute neighborhood, you were in the five-minute neighborhood. You hop off the train, pick up some groceries, run to the bank, wave to your neighbors, see children at play, and walk into your home without ever needing to turn the ignition key. This isn’t just an unachievable utopia, it’s how people live in Barcelona, in Paris, in Rome, in Tokyo, and in New York City. Increasingly it’s how people live in some of the most walkable parts of Seattle.

Jackson Park Golf Course consumes toxic pesticides and enough water to fill a small lake, but it has the bones of a good park once we cease the destructive practices needed to maintain a golf course. The trees rise as high as 100 feet and offer a wonderful habitat for nature and human comfort. But those trees only cover 39% of the land. By setting aside 60 acres of the course’s open land for housing, we can create home for 35,000 people, secure affordable housing, provide space for 750 businesses, and preserve more than 90% of the trees for large parks and pedestrian-oriented streets.

An earlier illustration estimated housing for 40,000 residents was possible, but creating a larger Ellis Park shrunk that. 2.5 million square feet of land developed to seven stories still can yield homes for approximately 35,000 people. (Image by author)

Courtyards, woonerfs, boulevards, and large open spaces, the trees would tie together an ecodistrict focused on sustainability. Walkable neighborhoods don’t require street parking and the ecodistrict would supply only a few underground spaces on the edges for residents who can’t make other modes work. Utility vehicles, deliveries, and other necessary auto access can occur through dedicated service streets. Some deliveries may be done by bicycle and retractable bollards would allow for emergency vehicles to enter necessary access points.

While protecting over 90% of the trees, we can create a walkable neighborhood connecting two light rail stops with key nodes of activity and two major parks named after key Seattle visionaries (image by author)
While protecting over 90% of the trees, we can create a walkable neighborhood connecting two light rail stops with key nodes of activity and two major parks named after key Seattle visionaries (Image by author)

Jim Ellis Park Is Born

Developing the course to house a dense neighborhood would also free up land for large public parks. Right now, Seattle declares a golf course a “park,” but you can’t have a picnic on a fairway, or toss a frisbee to a dog, and you certainly can’t get your family on without paying more than $100 in fees. This sounds less like a public park and more like Disneyland. Sixty acres of development leaves 100 acres of open park space. This would benefit the community and the surrounding neighborhoods, businesses, and anyone who got off at the new light rail stop to take a stroll.

It’d also be great opportunity to rename the park. Rather than taking its name from Andrew Jackson–one of our most genocidal presidents–the largest open space could be named after the iconic local transportation advocate Jim Ellis who fought to upgrade Seattle’s infrastructure and convinced a slim majority of King County voters to support a rapid transit network in 1968–if only the threshold hadn’t been set at 60%. Without the groundwork Ellis helped lay, these light rail stops likely aren’t built and Sound Transit may have never existed.

In addition to Jim Ellis Park, smaller parks and open spaces can be enjoyed by the residents and surrounding community. As Seattle commits to make the popular Stay Healthy Streets permanent, the ecodistrict would feature dozens of car-free right-of-ways with large indigenous trees and plenty of space for markets to pop up and for restaurants to spill out.  

La Rambla in Barcelona offers the look and feel of a car free street surrounded by dense urban housing. Streets like these would make up the entire neighborhood and work around existing trees (image source: Hotel Casa Del Sol)
La Rambla in Barcelona offers the look and feel of a car free street surrounded by dense urban housing. Streets like these would make up the entire neighborhood and work around existing trees (Image credit: Hotel Casa Del Sol)

Let’s Build a Sustainable Community

People and vibrancy is what makes cities feel large. Barcelona and Manhattan don’t feel big because of the amount of land they consume, they feel big because there is a lot of dense activity. The one thing they have in common is people and places and how easily the two mix. A ten-minute walk has an enormously positive effect on someone’s mood. So why aren’t we designing our neighborhoods to feature people, safety, and vibrancy?

The most sustainable thing we can do is house people in dense walkable neighborhoods. What Seattle needs is more housing and affordable housing. Public land can leverage this necessary supply and build a mixed-income neighborhood with secured affordable housing. Doing so will fill the need for housing supply of all types and collect millions of dollars to build more transit-oriented affordable housing. In addition to housing supply, this ecodistrict would become an economic engine for the city, supplying thousands of jobs and creating a sustainable neighborhood and tax base.  

With 2.5 million square feet of roof space to feature solar panels, over half of the power supply would be generated on site with passive house principles lowering energy needs. Rain capturing would supply fresh water, and the gray water captured from showers and sinks would supply non-potable uses and keep on-site vegetation healthy. If we build with mass timber, the structures alone would sequester 630 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 1.5 trillion miles traveled by car.

Seattle isn’t a small town, we are just planned and zoned like one. Seattle has plenty of space for dense housing growth to accommodate the current population trends (Images to scale by the author)
Seattle isn’t a small town, we are just planned and zoned like one. Seattle has plenty of space for dense housing growth to accommodate current population trends. (Images to scale by the author)

The neighborhood would create housing in our city rather than pushing people into sprawl. For 35,000 to live in this neighborhood we only need 60 acres, and it would be designed around the freedom of transit and walkability. To house them in suburban sprawl, it would take 3,000 acres and they’d be limited to car dependency. Those 35,000 people are moving to the region either way, do we want them to live in Seattle or the suburban fringe encroaching on wilderness? 

Seattle has made planning mistakes in the past. But here is our chance to learn from those errors and work towards solving a housing and climate crisis. Developing public land near transit stops for dense, walkable and sustainable housing shouldn’t be a pipe dream, it should be par for the course. 

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28 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t live in Seattle, but have two comments:
    1) Research on Carbon sequestration by use mass timber concludes that the degree and amount of sequestration is highly dependent on factors such as how the supply forests are managed, how far they are from the manufacturing factory, how far the factory is the from the building site, and whether the structures themselves are designed so when they reach their functional end the materials can be efficiently salvaged for additional reuse. The number used here for C sequestration may be unduly optimistic as a result.
    2) These sorts of urban forest parks certainly have value as urban recreation and environmental amenities and do produce localized environmental benefits, But its ridiculous to couch such parks as being in any way significant for conservation of nature.

    • Yes, it requires forest management to get to 1 metric ton per cubic meter of wood. I think what is more troubling is how much co2 cars output *per year*, not the finer tuning of how much carbon is sequestered in mass timber production.

      The other matter is, without density and creating home to house 3 years worth of Seattle’s population growth on a single site, these people will only further encroach on wilderness on the suburban fringe as NIMBYs shout “Seattle is full”. European cities are dense and, in result, far closer to nature and far better in treatment of nature.

  2. I note there’s no serious push to make this park sprawl affordable housing. I am no fan of golf courses, but I’m not about to support paving our green spaces for developments that scream “rich white enclave”. There’d also be practically no spot in the park where you wouldn’t see a building. Parks like Carkeek and Ravenna, where one is surrounded by trees, are much more valuable to a city long term.

    Would the architects be willing to guarantee fully half the units be rented out to those who make 30% AMI and push the buildings together? After all, this is public land, right? Or is this an excuse to have private capital “investment” take from the city and profit off of it?

  3. I’m not going to critique the premise of this article (though I disagree with it), but I wish the author would do more homework.
    It doesn’t cost $100 to get your family out – kids golf for $5, and are often free in afternoons. They also only ‘run in the red’ because greens fees subsidize other public assets like pools and tennis courts . Guessing you don’t want to pave over Mounger or Evans pools to build more housing.
    Try getting a tee time today at any city course – good luck getting on before the sun starts setting. Go to Jefferson park and look at the demographics of the golfers. Closing municipal courses will ensure that only the rich can play golf.

    • More people booked tee times in 2013 than now, so what does that say about how used they are? Prior to 2013 they didn’t run in the red, now they do and likely will for the forseeable future.

      And you’re wrong about the prices. Their website says every adult is charged $35 on week days and $40 on weekends and all golfers under the age of 17 are charged $13.75

      A family of four is paying $107 on the weekend or $97 on a week day. And who has time to golf during the week to save that $10???

      http://premiergc.com/-rates(6)

      • You won’t show your work, so I’ll show mine: https://wagolf.org/play/junior-golf/youth-on-course/. Kids can play about 15 rounds for $100. I trust you can add adult fees and the aggregate $6.70 per kid.
        And read the study – the courses aren’t in the red, the parks are. The courses are required – appropriately, IMHO- to pay a percentage of their income to subsidize fields, pools, tennis courts, etc.
        Again, try to make a tee time and let me know how desolate the courses are.

        • What do you think would make more money, a dozen tee times or a land leasing the development and collecting business taxes in the vibrant neighborhood?

          Heck, you could fund all the parks AND golf courses on this one site alone!

  4. News to me that golf is seeing a decline. Clearly you haven’t tried booking a tee time since they reopened after the COVID shutdown.

    • Long way to go to make up for the 45% decline in use, as reported by Seattle Parks Department. 2013 to 2017 saw bookings and revenue fall off a cliff. And the report was about how golf will *come back*, showing an unsubstantiated curve upward, breaking even in 2027.

      Yikes. Way down. Jackson Park itself was 25% decline.

  5. Wanna build a world class city? Create parks.

    Wanna be shill for developers? Just keep recommending we pave everything.

    I don’t see recommendations for converting parks in North Seattle into housing, which often makes me wondering how blatantly racist you will go with your suggestions.

  6. I’m sympathetic to the need for more housing but this sets a bad precedent that nimbys will continue to exploit. Only next time it’ll be actual parks not the golf courses.

    Fix the zoning problems and you address the problem without giving an inch of current green space.

    • I disagree. NIMBYs love their parks more than their parking space. They won’t demand housing get built on Seattle’s park spaces, that’s just unwarranted fear. If you upzone around the golf course and leave it alone, then they’ll fight even harder because that’s their house, their neighborhood changing. This plan not only avoids the pressure for doing that, it *creates* 75 acres of pure open park space they can also use. And the other 25 acres are pedestrian oriented right of ways with massive trees and cafes and restaurants spilling out into the European style streets.

      • We can disagree for sure but NIMBYs will fight for the parks that exist around them. They don’t care about parks in other parts of the city, particularly South Seattle. Look at how hard Magnolia is fighting the Fort Lawton development, and that’s not even really a park.

        If you think that’s unwarranted fear, I think your logic that proposal would be an olive branch compromise that they’d welcome with a warm embrace is unwarranted optimism.

        Don’t give them an inch – fight for true zoning reform city-wide and reducing the influence of single family home owners on our politics instead of drops in the bucket and short term solutions like this.

        • I’m a big fan of upzoning the whole city. I made those to-scale maps in the article of Barcelona and Manhattan to illustrate how 2 and 3 times the population of Seattle fit in areas a third or half the size of our land mass. This one single development doesn’t solve all problems. It houses 35,000 but 11,000 are moving to Seattle every year and have been since 2010.

          I want an upzoned city to triplexes and stacked flats at *minimum*, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing this too.

          The only park spaces big enough for any real housing developments in Seattle are golf courses anyway. Jefferson would be a good one too!

  7. Leave this legacy jewel alone. Most any bus lines have closed business/ abandon looking structures.
    Take those for redevelopment kill two birds with one stone.. upgrade and house there.
    To destroy take away green space, and not address the bus line blight seems misguided
    Thanks for listening

  8. I like this idea a lot. I also like that it’s urbanists invoking Manhattan and Barcelona as models~ without demolishing existing SF neighborhoods to get there.

    • That is an added benefit, yes. Something, perhaps, the surrounding neighbors could get behind. We wouldn’t need 75′ buildings on their block if we had this neighborhood constructed. More like modest upzones to townhomes and stacked flats.

  9. I thought there was a law on the books that said no amount of existing parkland (including gold courses) can be put to alternative use unless it is completely replaced elsewhere in the city. I had also heard this law was implemented through public initiative which means the city council cannot over turn it.

    FWIW, i am 100% for the idea of using this and other courses in the city for housing and parkland that can be accessed by more than paying golfers.

    • City ordinances adopted by the initiative process (voter approval) are not cast in stone forever~ City Council can amend them after a number of years.

    • Depends on the definition of a “park”. These are not parks and only fall under the umbrella of Seattle Park’s & Recreation, who runs them. I’m willing to bet a land use attorney could poke holes in the argument that these acres are “park space”. Also, that passed in 1997 and was probably a really low turnout. I’d be happy putting it on the ballot to reverse it for public golf courses

  10. Concrete is FOREVER. Architects & Developers make the WOR$T city planners. Overpopulation is a problem. Who really wants Manahattan or Barcelona as wonderful city life role models? Leave the Parks alone. There are currently 10,000 homeless in King County who would not be able to afford to live in your planned corporate owned developments.

    • It’s actually a mass timber proposal, but I’m sure some concrete and some wonderful urban paving elements will be involved.

      Who wants what Manhattan or Barcelona have? Answer: A lot more people than don’t. That’s why they have millions of people in their cities and the same reason why Seattle is growing by 11,000 per year for a decade. People want to live in your city, they don’t want to golf.

      Once upon a time Seattle was a forest. And then some people mowed it down to build our neighborhoods. And the population grew from 30,000 to 300,000 in less than a decade.

      We need to build housing. This is not a park. What is proposed would have 70 acres of actual park in addition to pedestrian oriented right of ways. 100 acres in total. If it’s a park, then let me on without a fee to have a picnic whenever I like. Otherwise, it’s private property.

  11. I legitimately understand the concern. But leaving 100 acres of open park space will be a huge boon for the area and the city as a whole. It would be 20% the open space of Discovery Park and be one of the largest provided open spaces in the city. The golf course has a lot of land uncovered by trees, so preservation is possible and critical.

    What could come of this is the housing goals being achieved with far less upzoning in the surrounding single family neighborhood. Not that this is the purpose or goal here. But with more housing supply on public land, you can relax some of the surrounding context’s contribution which might be considered since there are little to no sidewalks here.

    Alternatively, we need to upzone around all parks, including this newly created series of them, not house people *on* them. I think that would be a non-starter even for NIMBYs. NIMBYs love their parks, they don’t want them going away.

  12. We need density, not less parks. The zoning in Seattle is ridiculous and turning park space into housing isn’t sustainable. I would be in favor of this for an isolated instance, but this could really backfire. If this becomes a precedent, NIMBY people will start proposing building housing in parks across the city from them (or in minority neighborhoods) rather than rezoning their single family neighborhoods. And everyone will lose by having less parks.

    • You legally can’t eliminate park space in Seattle. Even if this project became reality, the city would have to find 60 acres somewhere else to supply park space with similar recreation. That’s why we should look no further than Sand Point Country Club, which has a dangerously low land value assessment of $1 per square foot. The city of Seattle could buy it via eminent domain, make it a public golf course, and in turn develop Jackson Park Golf Course without losing any open space acreage.

      So even if somehow NIMBYs say “develop parks for housing”, they theoretically *can’t* without finding equal land size elsewhere.

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