The Battle of Seattle

Published on Monday, August 19th, 2019 in Features

Jefferson Park Golf Course

The Report further notes that while the courses have technically been running a net loss, it’s not for a lack of profit — in fact, profits from Seattle’s golf courses are being used to fund other Parks programs throughout the city.

According to the Report, since 2006, the City has “sought to achieve a 103.5-105 percent revenue cost recovery from the municipal golf courses.” Furthermore, City courses are required to divert five percent of their profits each year to the Parks Fund, to help pay for less profitable programs. In layman’s terms, that means that City golf courses were not only required to cover their own costs in the City’s annual budget, but to bring in an additional 3.5-5 percent in revenue each year. (This, the Report added, was not true of other City recreation programs — aquatics must only recoup 50 percent of its costs, swimming pools 77 percent, and community centers 15 percent.) And, in fact, the golf courses have turned a profit every year — since 2006, the Report states, the Golf Program has contributed $3.7 million to the Parks Fund, well above its operating and capital expenses. It’s only when debt service payments, and the additional five percent to the Parks Fund are subtracted, that net income dips into the red.

The Report also cites the recent investment in driving range facilities at Jefferson Park and Jackson Park as making significant contributions to the golf courses’ bottom line, and notes $35.6 million in currently unfunded maintenance and improvements, with various ways to address those needs, including bonds that would result in further debt service.

And, it’s here where critics chime in — if the City is going to take on debt, why do it to support golf courses instead of affordable housing?

“According to the Census Bureau, Seattle was the fastest-growing city in the nation, the population increasing by almost 19 percent over the past 10 years,” said Kelsey Nyland, communications assistant to Mayor Jenny Durkan, in response to our request for a comment from the Mayor. “Affordable housing development, coupled with rising rents in the private market, has not kept pace with the need. As the number of affordable units continue to decrease, the cost of housing continues to skyrocket; over the past six years, rents have increased 57 percent.”

A recent study found that 47 percent of households that rent in the Seattle metro area are “housing-cost burdened,” which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In 2017, the Seattle Housing Authority opened its lottery for the Housing Choice Voucher program, which helps low-income families, individuals, seniors and people with disabilities pay their monthly rent in privately owned apartments or houses. More than 21,500 applications were received, for just 3,500 available spots.

It’s clear from this data — and, frankly, from simply driving around Seattle and noting the steadily increasing homeless population, and the high costs of homes and apartments within city limits — that affordable housing is a legitimate and important issue for the City to resolve. In his Times editorial, however, Westneat notes that it’s one the City is, in fact, already addressing.

“We need more housing (which we’re rapidly building),” he notes. “But the cause has become so strident it’s making Seattle lose its mind — to the point we’re now actually considering paving over prime parkland, in the mistaken belief that we’re running out of land for housing. We are not.”

According to an April 2019 Citywide Permit Report, 30,000 housing units have been built in Seattle since 2016, with 19,000 more currently under construction.

“That means the city’s goal of building 50,000 units in ten years, launched in 2016, has effectively been achieved — years early,” Westneat writes, adding that despite this boom, there is still room for an additional 200,000 units — enough to accommodate thousands of families, and help control housing costs, all without taking away any existing park space.

But, let’s say the City looked at all of this data, and decided to move forward with a plan to turn municipal golf courses into housing. How quickly could that happen? And, what would it cost?

The answer to the first question is: not anytime soon. The second? Well, let’s just say the City had better get a lot of bang for its buck from those houses.

Both questions relate back to an initiative — Initiative 42 — passed in 1997, which states that park space “shall be preserved for such use; and no such land or facility shall be sold, transferred, or changed from park use to another usage.”

If you read that law and think that it says that the City can’t turn park space into housing — you’re right. There is one exception, however — the City can convert park space to another usage, so long as it is replaced by “land of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity.”

In other words, the only way the city can convert its municipal golf courses into housing is to buy up an equivalent amount of land — 528 acres, to be exact — “in the vicinity” of each course, and convert that to park space instead.

The estimated cost of that much land within city limits — assuming it could even be found? Approximately $3.39 billion to $12.78 billion. As Westneat noted in a follow-up column on June 19 addressing Initiative 42, even converting just a portion of one golf course — in his example, 50 acres of Jackson Park — “would cost [the city] $300 million to more than $1 billion, “according to the parks department’s own estimates.”


Jackson Park Golf Course

While the City has only engaged so far in speculation, Levine is suspicious.

“Although no decisions have been made yet, and though the mayor insists she is looking at all the options, I don’t believe anyone spends more than $100K on a study without having an agenda or ulterior motive,” he says.

The anti-golf sentiment is strong in progressive cities like Seattle. Here, that time-tested and commonly-held view of golf and golfers as restrictive, exclusionary, and privileged holds firm. And, though the players on Seattle’s municipal courses likely share similar liberal-minded opinions as the majority of city residents, the fact that they indulge in this undemocratic sport sets them apart in the eyes of many.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that those that despise golf saw the publishing of the “Strategic Business Plan for the Future of City of Seattle Owned Municipal Golf Courses” as an opportunity to list their grievances.

Golf courses take up a lot of space, use up natural resources, and go unused by large swaths of the population. Golf skeptics have plenty of ammunition with which to influence City Hall.

The facts, though, remain staunchly on the side of golf. A significant number of city residents — including large numbers of women, minorities and seniors — use Seattle’s municipal courses, which provide low-cost and discounted access to the game for tens of thousands of golfers who might otherwise be barred from participation for financial reasons. Furthermore, Seattle’s public courses — especially Jefferson Park — have a long and storied tradition of ethnic diversity, while providing vital resources for the youth of the city to learn character and life skills each year. The courses more than cover their own expenses, and even help fund other Parks department programs as well.

While Seattle certainly needs more housing, plowing under Seattle’s parks and municipal golf courses isn’t necessary to meet that need — nor, under current laws, is it even possible, without the City incurring significant expenses that would create a much bigger problem than already exists.

Anthony, who has led the charge for Save Seattle Golf, thinks Seattle can have it both ways.

“We are a huge city,” she adds. “There is no reason why Seattle can’t support four golf courses.”

Related Stories: A Bold New Vision for Seattle’s Golf Future

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