What began as a plan to boost flood protection around the San Francisquito Creek turned on Monday into an ambitious effort to enhance Palo Alto's recreational opportunities by completely revamping the city's golf course and adding three playing fields to the Baylands site.
The City Council unanimously agreed Monday, July 23, to approve a $7.5 million redesign of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, a project that will move at least 15 of the course's 18 holes, create a new levee to contain flood water from the fickle creek and make 10.5 acres available for three athletic playing fields. Despite some reservations from local golfers, council members enthusiastically embraced the most expensive and dramatic design option on the table -- a plan known as "Option G."
The project is spearheaded by the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency that includes Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the San Mateo County Flood Control District. The agency, which is charged with improving flood control around the creek, proposed building a levee at the Baylands golf course as one of several projects downstream of U.S. Highway 101.
But on Monday, the council agreed to leverage this emergency-preparedness project into something greater -- a chance to significantly expand the city's recreational facilities. Under Option G, the creek authority would pay about $3.2 million for the golf-course redesign and the city would contribute $4.3 million, with the local revenue coming from golf-course fees over 20 years.
The option the council voted to pursue is more than twice as expensive as Option A, the $3.5 million "baseline" option that would meet the creek authority's objectives but would create only minimal enhancements to the course. But members agreed that even the $7.5 million price tag is a bargain considering what the city would be getting for its money -- namely, improved flood protection, a golf course with a "wow" factor and three new full-sized athletic fields.
Councilman Pat Burt, channeling the consensus opinion, called it a "win-win-win-win-win" situation -- a chance for the city to improve the golf course, boost flood protection, pursue the most financially lucrative design, open three new playing fields and better integrate the course with its surroundings.
"It's going to be turned into an exciting course that has a natural habitat and will become integrated with the Baylands and be part of the Baylands rather than apart from the Baylands as it is today," Burt said.
The option that the council chose entails removing 10.5 acres from the course and putting on this land three athletic fields, a small playground, a wetlands park and picnic space.
The council's decision to pursue Option G was supported by an analysis from the consulting firm NGF Consulting, which projected this option would have the highest return on investment over time. Under the firm's estimate, the golf course would run at a deficit of $124,000 in 2013 and $459,000 in 2014, the years of construction. After that, the course's bottom line would gradually rise, reaching $743,000 in 2020. Under the most pessimistic scenario, one in which the golfer fees and the number of rounds played both drop, the course wouldn't start making money until 2019.
Not everyone, however, bought the economic argument. The city's Golf Advisory Committee questioned NGF's analysis and urged the council to approve the more conservative Option D. Golfers were particularly put off by the costs that they would have to shoulder through their playing fees. Craig Allen, president of the Palo Alto Golf Club, said he would happily play on the redesigned golf course but urged the council not to force the golfers to foot the bill for the entire project.
"You're asking the golfer to pay for athletic fields," Allen said. "I think it's inappropriate and you have to find another way to do that."
But others praised the most ambitious option as by far the most beneficial. The city's Parks and Recreation Commission had voted to support Option G. So did the council's Finance Committee. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd said the committee viewed the option as a victory on several levels, including the creation of a golf course with a "'Wow' factor."
Some members shared the golfers' concerns about the project's cost, particularly if the consultants' projections about the golf course's future revenues don't pan out. Councilwoman Karen Holman said she'd be more comfortable with an option that doesn't require the city to take on long-term debt.
Mayor Yiaway Yeh said he's really excited to add recreational opportunities to the Baylands but encouraged his colleagues to start considering, as soon as possible, ways to pay for the additional improvements. Even with the financial uncertainty, Yeh praised city's decision to invest in the golf course. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff agreed.
"What's amazing is that there really aren't any negatives to this," Scharff said. "This is a fabulous win for the community and to get the land for three playing fields is huge.
"This really is something that I feel is just fantastic for the community."
Councilman Larry Klein took it a step further and said the bigger risk would be to not pursue Option G.
"We have an opportunity here to, in effect, create 10 acres of land for $4 million or so," Klein said.
Klein estimated that it would cost somewhere between $5 million and $10 million to buy an acre of land elsewhere in the city. He called the $4 million expenditures a "good deal."
Councilwoman Gail Price shared his enthusiasm and said she's "very impressed" with the design plan presented by staff and its consulting architect, Forrest Richardson.
"I think it's a tremendous improvement and very much needed in the city," Price said.