The Battle of Seattle

A comprehensive look at what the City of Seattle can, can’t — and, perhaps, should — do with its four municipal golf courses.

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

It’s darkly ironic that while Seattleites have easy access to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, if not the world, there is precious little green space within the Emerald City itself. The Seattle Times reports that just 12.5 percent of the City is devoted to parks, whereas 21.7 percent of New York City is used for public recreation. Nearly 20 per cent of San Francisco, 19.4 percent of Las Vegas, and 15.2 percent of Phoenix are similarly zoned.

Of Seattle’s 6,414 park acres, only 528 are reserved for public golfers, with just three and a half municipally-owned courses — or, 72 open-to-all holes, including three 18-hole championship courses and nine-holers at Jackson Park and Interbay — available to a population of 750,000 people.

It’s not pushing the boat out terribly far to suggest that Seattle is not a big golf town, but the three 18-holers — Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, and West Seattle — have served the City since 1915, 1930, and 1940, respectively, and are held dear by those who have been playing them for decades.

Regulars got quite a jolt, therefore, in April when reporter Erica C. Barnett revealed on that the City had spent $104,000 on a 131-page study completed by Lund Consulting, Scanlan Consulting and Cocker Fennessy, that looked into the ongoing feasibility of Seattle’s publicly owned golf courses and whether or not the land upon which they sit might be better-suited to other purposes, most notably low-income housing.

As expected, reactions to the Lund Report ran the gamut of opinion.

First came shock and alarm from golfers. Margaret Anthony, a former Parks employee and a member of the West Seattle Women’s Club, organized a “Save Seattle Golf” meeting at Jefferson Park in late May, and was astonished when hundreds of fellow golfers turned out.

A week later, the issue surged to the forefront when Scott Hanson published a story in The Seattle Times under the headline, “Booming Seattle questions future of City courses,” in which Mayor Jenny Durkan was decidedly non-committal, stating that, “It would be a breach of our duty to the people of Seattle not to be really looking at what is the 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.”

Multiple editorials followed — include from those in support of golf, like Chris Daniels at KING-TV and Aaron Levine at Q13 Fox, each of whom aired fierce defenses of the sport on their respective stations; those opposed, like Mike Eliason at The Urbanist, who lashed out at golf’s environmental impact, falling popularity and elitist mindset; and those like Times columnist Danny Westneat, who didn’t so much defend golf as park space in general.

Lost in much of the back-and-forth discussion, though, were the facts. Golf’s opponents claim that the city’s courses are “bleeding money,” and that they are used by a small — and, largely older, white and male — segment of the city’s population, while tens of thousands of largely poor, lower- and middle-class families are squeezed out of the city due to a lack of housing. Turning one or more of those courses into a mix of affordable housing and public park space, they argue, would dramatically alleviate Seattle’s housing crisis, and stop the revenue drain on the Parks department — a winning idea with liberal and conservative thinkers alike.

Are any of those claims true? What is the current financial status of Seattle’s municipal courses? What is the reality of Seattle’s housing situation? And, were the city to decide to move forward with a housing plan, could they even legally tear up golf courses to do it?

Interbay Golf Complex

According to the Lund/Scanlan/Cocker Fennessy Report (which we will heretofore just call “the Report”), the city’s courses have been used by an average of 238,000 golfers each year since 2009 — indeed, the Report cites a 2017 study by EMC Research that found that “13 percent of Seattle residents used a Seattle public golf course two or more times per year.”

The Report also notes that of the more than 206,000 rounds of golf played on Seattle municipal courses in 2018, more than 47,000 — over one quarter — were free or discounted rounds for juniors, seniors, disabled and military golfers. It also draws attention to the Fir State Golf Club — the nation’s second-oldest African American golf club — and Cascade Golf Club (originally founded in 1954 to increase opportunities for Chinese golfers, and now more ethnically diverse), both headquartered at Jefferson Park. In addition, Bogey Bear and First Tee programs create opportunities for thousands of young golfers each year, with the former specifically serving inner-city youth who may not otherwise have the means to play the game.

“People should come out to a municipal golf course and see for themselves,” says Dan Wartelle, Executive Director of The First Tee of Greater Seattle, which has taught golf and life lessons to over 100,000 Seattle-area youth since 2004. “Roughly half the kids in Seattle’s First Tee program are non-Caucasian, 35 percent are girls, and over 70 percent of our players receive financial aid to participate.”

Wartelle says plowing under municipal golf courses in Seattle would be a huge blow to programs like The First Tee.

“Depriving youngsters of the chance to learn the game and essential life skills like honesty, integrity, responsibility and perseverance would be disastrous,” he says. “We should be adding park space, not taking it away. The City must be living in a bizarro world if it thinks removing open green space is good for Seattle.”

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