An urbanist defense of Seattle parks and golf courses

In 1996, when a Seattle city park was threatened with development, citizens drafted and collected signatures for the Protect Our Parks Initiative #42. The Protect Our Parks Initiative was affirmed by the Seattle City Council by a 9-0 vote and was signed into law by Mayor Norm Rice.

In spite of the hard-won victory for people and parks, Mayor Jenny Durkan has been making some puzzling public statements about golf courses, racial equity, and affordable housing. For example, this head-scratcher released from the Mayor’s office: “As we weigh options for the future of the City of Seattle’s four golf courses, Mayor Durkan believes we have an opportunity to examine our golf courses with the goals of supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.” (emphasis mine)

As appealing as this ‘equity and affordable housing two-fer’ might sound, golfers and non-golfers alike should take pause, consider the facts, and ask some important questions before any of our precious park lands are sacrificed to development.

Thousands of petitioners want Seattle parks to be protected from development

Save Seattle Parks change.org petition has over 10,000 supporters and is gaining nearly 1,000 supporters each day. Our volunteers have collected an additional 1200+ signatures on paper at golf courses and parks throughout the city.

Save Seattle Parks, is asking Mayor Jenny Durkan, Seattle City Councilmembers, and all candidates for Seattle’s seven contested council seats to affirm their commitment to protect our parks for future generations by answering this question: Will you pledge to protect Seattle parks from development and uphold the requirements as stated in Initiative 42?

Troubling Fact: The city didn’t gather demographic data (racial, socioeconomic) for its golf study

“There is no data available regarding minority participation rates at Seattle public golf courses.” City of Seattle, Strategic Business Plan for the Future of City of Seattle Owned Municipal Golf Courses 

If the City had collected demographic information about golfers, they might have discovered the assumption-busting fact that Seattle’s golf community looks more like this:

“These [Seattle golf courses] are not played by people who belong to private golf courses, and it’s a very diverse people population,” said Bill Schickler, founder and president of Premier Golf Centers. “You’ve got grandparents playing with grandkids and kids, and you’ve got women and men of all ethnicities playing these courses and they are very much in need as a resource for sport and recreation in the community.” (Seattle Times)

Seattle’s fast-growing population needs more park land, not less

Seattle devotes less land to parks (12.5%) than cities such as New York (21.7%)*, San Francisco (19.6%), Boston (17.4%), Minneapolis Phoenix (15.2%) or even Las Vegas (19.4%) (Seattle Times and the Trust for Public Lands)

Instead of reducing our park lands, let’s utilize surplus parcels to expand our acreage of parks and build housing around them. This is a win-win solution for parks, housing and our quality of life.

Hundreds of publicly-owned surplus parcels of land in Seattle and King County are available for affordable housing.

In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund a database and mapping tool to help developers and nonprofits find these parcels. The areas highlighted in blue on the map below are surplus. So why is City Hall talking about using precious, irreplaceable park lands for housing?

Seattle’s flawed affordable housing strategies have made housing less affordable and have disproportionately impacted communities of color

After years of a regional effort to build our way out of the housing affordability crisis, we have produced exactly the opposite. Rents have tripled and housing is less affordable than ever. Seattle is continuing to destroy truly affordable housing by issuing permits for new buildings that displace older, affordable, housing stock. Affordable housing stock (which is typically 50 to 60 years old) continues to be displaced by Seattle’s flawed policies.

Yes, more development will bring us more housing supply, but we cannot expect it to be ‘affordable’ for low-income residents without also providing substantial subsidies. Creative accounting methods that ignore the value of land used for ‘affordable housing’ may successfully hide, but does not change, the true value of public lands. 

Read more: Councilmembers Gonzalez and Mosqueda level charges of racism against neighborhoods opposing their pro-density agenda; it’s polarizing and 180 degrees wrong

developers have too much influence at city hall

Award-winning journalist, John V. Fox, writing for The Displacement Coalition: In reality, she’s [Mayor Durkan] found an excuse to bring together in one room a who’s who of the city’s pro-downtown, pro-density, and developer elite and, like every Mayor we’ve observed over the last 45 years, given them a formal role (not just their usual behind the scenes role) in shaping policies that affect them.  It’s a foregone conclusion what they’ll recommend: give us more tax breaks, more upzoning, more freedom to build what we want and where we want. As a former councilmember once remarked, “Every developer who lobbies me has really only one underlying message: ‘Give us more, anything that doesn’t is bad.’”  (John V. Fox, Outside City Hall, February 13, 2019)

Contrary to a popular narrative promoted by some, golf is not dying in Seattle

Golf is doing quite well in Seattle and it actually pulls its own weight in the parks budget. Is there any other park activity that can make this claim?

Here’s the truth about Seattle’s golf study and the financial contribution of golf to the parks budget. The study focused on the financial health and sustainability of Seattle golf courses (The Hour, June 8, 2019, emphasis mine)

  • From 2013-17, the courses combined to have a net profit in operating income each year. But factoring in the 5 percent the courses give back to the Seattle Parks Fund and debt service on improvements made at the courses put them $1.8 million in the red.
  • In 2017, the courses had $10.2 million in revenue and $9.8 in expenses, not including the payment to the Parks Fund or the debt service payment.
  • However, “2017 was very poor weather year, whereas 2018 was a stellar year. In 2018, they achieved record revenues in virtually every category. Our revenue was almost $1 million better than budget, and in 2019, we are running already a half a million dollars ahead of budget revenue for 2019 (as of the end of May),” Schickler said.
golf is the only park use being singled out for scrutiny when, ironically, it is the ONLY Seattle park activity that generates millions of dollars in revenue for the city

Two arguments advanced by City Hall don’t stand up to logical scrutiny and simply make no sense. Argument 1: Golf must be profitable or the courses could be converted to other uses. Argument 2: Municipal golf courses are ‘not available to everyone (because of fences, fees and equipment costs.)’

If City Hall consistently applies the arguments  that ‘park uses must pay for themselves, be available to everyone or potentially be reprogrammed’, we should also then be looking at converting city-owned dog parks, The Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Aquarium, swimming pools, wading pools, children’s play areas, football fields, baseball and soccer fields, and bike trails to housing because ‘not everyone can use them.’

The fact is, there are many activities people can choose to enjoy in Seattle parks. Many of these activities require the payment of fees and the purchase of expensive equipment (many of them much more expensive than golf, such as dog ownership**, bicycling, football and even softball) The truth is that anyone can participate in any of these park activities if they like. All are heavily subsidized by the city and none of them ‘pay for themselves.’

City Hall has painted itself into a corner given that golf is one of the few park uses that generates significant revenue for the city. So conversion of a golf course to non-golf use actually makes the city-revenue problem worse.

“Pools and other recreation aren’t asked to pay for their costs of construction,” Schickler said. “The courses themselves make money, but it’s other overhead. The parks fund pulls money out of (the courses) for other programs and now they are paying for the interest on the debt. It’s only after those items are included that there is any deficit.” (Seattle Times)

If we’re going to look at our public amenities through racial equity and revenue lenses then let’s look at all of them through the same lens.

Golf courses create green benefits for everyone.

All park lands, including golf courses, provide refuge for urban wildlife, preservation of unpaved spaces that capture rainwater runoff and trees and green spaces that help clean polluted air and cool the city. 

Our senior citizens, who can no longer participate in high impact sports, benefit the most from golf 

The physical, mental health, and environmental benefits of golf must be considered and economically quantified before any decision is made regarding golf courses in Seattle. Golf is an especially important excersie opportunity for seniors who can no longer engage in high impacts vigorous sports such as baseball, soccer, football, or even tennis. Eliminating a golf course would disproportionately impact elders in our community who can no longer participate in many other physical activities.

Research regarding the benefits of urban green spaces is robust and persuasive: parks may be the cheapest, quickest, and greenest way to improve human and community health, and all with almost no negative side effects. People who have easy and frequent access to urban green spaces have higher rates of college attendance and job satisfaction and lower rates of criminal behaviour, obesity, anxiety, and depression. Spending time in green spaces can reduce symptoms of ADHD and dementia, boost concentration, and improve high school student performance. People who live within a half-mile of a park report exercising more often and with greater intensity than those who live farther away. Parks are also good for communities. They cut air pollution, reduce crime rates, boost social cohesion among diverse ethnic groups, and help people feel more connected to their neighbors.”  (Maggie Morales, Sightline Institute June 2017)

we can do better

Parks, golf courses, affordable housing and density are not mutually exclusive options. Before we consider giving any of our parklands to developers, let’s put all options on the table, invite everyone to participate, consider all of the ramifications, think creatively and work together to create win-win solutions for Seattle.

By building affordable housing on top of our parks, we use up their value. By building around them, we can amplify their value, thereby achieving the very goals espoused by the city: “supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future. Thatcher Bailey, Seattle Parks Foundation, June 2019

take action to protect seattle parks

Notes

*New York City also has a wealth of municipal golf courses and golf-related facilities https://www.nycgovparks.org/facilities/golf

**Rover.com, a Seattle-based pet-sitting website, figures the yearly average at $2,858 factoring in pet sitting ($25 per night), dog training ($40 per hour), teeth cleaning (at least $400) and emergency vet bills (USA Today).

 

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