Palo Alto golf course faces uncertain future | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto golf course faces uncertain future

City Council starts a 'broad' conversation about future of Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course

An effort by Palo Alto and its neighbors to calm the volatile San Francisquito Creek is prompting city officials to take a fresh look at the future of the city's Municipal Golf Course and consider whether the aged facility should be improved or eliminated altogether.

The golf course, which is located in the Baylands, is slated to play a major role in a regional effort to improve flood control. In 1998, the creek experienced a "45-year flood" (a flood that, by definition, is projected to take place once every 45 years) that caused about $28 million in damages in Palo Alto. Since then, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park have been working with water officials from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties on boosting flood protection.

The latest proposal by the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority -- an agency composed of officials from the three cities and the two water districts -- focuses on the most vulnerable area around the creek: the downstream section near Highway 101. To keep water from topping the banks, the creek authority is proposing to build a levee in the Baylands.

"Those levees along the Bay, combined with activities upstream of 101, would provide protection to get these parcels out of the flood planes," Len Materman, executive director of the creek authority, told the council Monday.

The new levee would have to stretch through the city's golf course, which was built in the mid 1950s and has seen a decline in usage over the past decade. The project means the course would have to be reconfigured, though the city has yet to determine what this would entail.

The City Council on Monday discussed various options for transforming the golf course to make way for the new levees -- ranging from the cheapest option, which would affect six or seven holes, to the most ambitious one, which would change 12 holes, create 12 new greens and make room for a new soccer field. While the council didn't make any decisions Monday, several members advocated broadening the conversation about the future of the 18-hole course.

Councilman Larry Klein said the discussion over golf designs is a bit premature and that the community needs to take a step back and consider whether a golf course is the best use for the 165-acre site.

Klein argued that the city is providing a "very substantial land-use subsidy" to local golfers, particularly when compared with residents involved in other recreational activities. Only about 20 percent of the golfers at the municipal course are city residents, according to staff estimates.

The question the council should be asking, Klein said, isn't just whether to spend a few hundred thousand dollars to reconfigure the course but also whether the facility deserves commitment from the city.

"Is the golf course still a viable model?" Klein asked. "Is it still the best use for 165 acres, given the amount of people still using it?"

Mayor Sid Espinosa agreed and said the council should "weigh the decision and weigh the different values" in the community.

"I'm in no way advocating that we lose the golf course, but I think we have a chance here to have this broader conversation," he added. "Shame on us if we're not able to find a way to have that conversation."

This conversation would, however, have to happen quickly if the creek authority is to reach its objective of starting construction within about a year. The authority, to which the city contributes $98,000 a year, will pay for mitigating the environmental impacts of building the levee, including the cost of reconfiguring the six or seven holes that the cheapest option involves. The city's consulting firm, Forrest Richardson & Associates, had estimated the cheapest option to cost about $3 million.

If the council chooses to pursue the more ambitious options, the city would have to pay for the additional upgrades. One moderate alternative, which would add eight greens to the course and reconfigure eight or nine holes, has an estimated price tag of about $4.1 million.

"There's an opportunity to invest in the golf course a little more than basic mitigations," Recreation Manager Rob de Geus told the council Monday.

The levee project, de Geus said, presents the city with numerous challenges, including the creek authority's ambitious timeline. The city, he said, will have to move through many issues in a very short period of time.

There's also the question of lost revenue. The golf course would have to be shifted from 18 holes to 9 holes during the construction period and rates would have to be discounted by more than 25 percent, de Geus said. The end results would be a loss of about $500,000 in revenues.

But these costs could potentially be recouped from increased playtime in an improved golf course. Proposed changes include removal of existing turf and addition of native grasses. Golf-course architect Forrest Richardson, who presented the designs to the council Monday, said the designs seek to use the trees and the landscape to the course's advantage and create areas of native habitat. The effect would be a more links-style course.

Councilman Pat Burt praised the design's integration of the course and the Baylands.

"You're rebuilding an ecosystem and tying it right in with the recreational system," Burt said.

Burt also proposed considering using a portion of the golf course site for playing fields. The city, he said, has very expensive land and few options for building these much needed facilities. He advocated exploring using 15 acres at the course for multiple playing fields.

"Frankly, I don't see much of any other opportunity for us to address playing fields in the community on the horizon unless we make more efficient use of our land," Burt said.

Councilwoman Karen Holman, a golfer, called the proposed designs "very exciting." The levee project, she said, allows the city to leverage creek-authority funds to make long-term improvements to the course.

"Golf is a sport that any gender or any age can play," Holman said. "It's a sport that all of those genders and ages can play at the same time. I think it's really critical that we keep that in mind as we look at what we do here."

The council's Finance Committee is scheduled to consider the broader options for the golf course's future in January, at which time staff will present more information about the financial implications of the various design alternatives.

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Like this comment
Posted by Bay Flooding too
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2011 at 10:29 am

It's great to be taking care of flooding at the San Francisquito Creek. With the polar ice caps melting faster than expected, we also need to address tidal flooding with new levees.

And we need to make sure what's done at the golf course handles tidal flooding.

Like this comment
Posted by For the birds
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2011 at 11:36 am

I agree with Larry Klein, the City needs to step back and see if there aren't better uses for the land.

The golf course is not very heavily used. In fact most of the players are retirees who will be dead in another 20 years.

I would like to see more playing fields for the young and the area closest to the Bay returned to marshland for the fish and birds. Meanwhile, more trees should be planted for the nesting herons.

Like this comment
Posted by long time resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2011 at 11:37 am

I think a 9-hole golf course would be and excellent idea as it would serve more people who could actually use the course. Most of us work 40+ weeks and fitting in an 18-hole course play just isn't an option for us very often. I believe the course may actually come out ahead as more people would play. But, enough with the consultations! The Board must have all of the necessary information by now. Wasted money!

Like this comment
Posted by Parttime Golfer
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 6, 2011 at 11:55 am

I think an 18-hole executive course would be great for junior golfers and families alike in Palo Alto. That might take up about 100 acres, leaving the rest to become a wonderful, family-oriented city recreational facility. The current course is outdated, boring and needs to be better integrated with the habitat there. Perhaps a golf course developer would like a 99-year lease on 100 acres to run a first class executive course with a first class instructional facility.

Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2011 at 12:42 pm

With the range of options available in the general area this golf course is unnecessary. I think this amount of land could be put to a much better use by including it in the baylands and making it part of the flood protection project.

Like this comment
Posted by golf fan of PA
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Looking at the percentage of residents that use a golf course is not the only way to evaluate the useage. All public golf courses have non-resident users and rates, thus revenue to the City. This is a public course with easy access from the Bayshore, and players come from up and down the peninsula and across the bay.
The course does need upgrading, but to consider eliminating it all together is short-sighted and a recreational loss to all age groups. The game of golf teaches some very basic life values; read the Nine Core Values of the First Tee Program for young people.
The city of Palo Alto is fortunate to have an 18 hole golf course, especially in the open space area of the Baylands. We should not lose it.

Like this comment
Posted by Sonny
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 6, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Turn it into a duck club with a restaurant.

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned Citizen
a resident of University South
on Dec 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

There are over 70,000 rounds of golf played at Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course. The pro shop and restaurant, separate independent operations, provide tax revenue to the city. The green fees and golf course provide over $300,000 in profit to the city. Kids that are playing soccer now will not be playing soccer when they become adults. They will be looking for recreational outlets, such as --- golf. Once again our city officials are being short sighted. Why aren't soccer fields considered further down Embarcadero Road. This open area could be used for soccer fields or play fields.

Like this comment
Posted by sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Flood "planes"? Are we talking golf course or airport?

Like this comment
Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Is the golf course profitable? Does it now bring in revenue or does the City subsidize it? How many residents play versus non-residents? How long would it take to recoup any investment? Under what conditions would it be profitable?

Too many times the Council has committed money because "it's only a few hundred thousand or a few million dollars". It's residents' taxpayer money. Until the above questions are answered any statements about the future and value of the course are opinions, not facts.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Our city is enjoying some fresh thinking about our baylands. It is about time. We have been trapped in a master plan that seemed locked and did not allow new ideas. Measure E shows our community can take a fresh look at land use plans.

Four major land uses in the Baylands are enjoying some fresh thinking: the airport, the landfill (compost), the water pollution control plant, and now the golf course. The Baylands study area begins on the bay side of Highway 101. The other land use down there feels pretty stale to me.

In the midst of this, why not take a fresh look at the Bayland Master Plan? We would enter the planning discussion with sharpened lenses: fiscal considerations, sustainability, and a fresh look at more modern recreational uses of land. How many folks play golf? How many folks have their own plane? What is a target demographic on use of public facilities - is 20% Palo Alto residents acceptable or too low? These questions will inform that we can do better.

(My own dream would be a swimming facility with a 50 meter pool in some repurposed land -- current pool space is jammed and inadequate. There are nearly a thousand Palo Alto youth swimmers plying their skills to grow athletically and to college - but they lack any 50 meter pool in town - a venue that is needed half the year.)

Sadly the problem with making any change is the "golf", "airport" and "park" constituencies are strong - especially when cornered. I recall that we could not even consider using 4 acres of airport land that are vacant dirt for composting was unacceptable - the mere symbolism of the loss was too much for the constituency. Council could not set a fresh course. The same outcome will be likely for the use of the golf course.

Still I am pleased with the realization that we can take hold of the handle bars, and provide fresh and updated land use plans. I just hope as we reconfigure the golf course the activity is not done in a planning vacuum, and considers how the fresh use of the golf course might factor with fresh use of the airport lands.

Like this comment
Posted by jim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Over the last 7 yrs - the golf course has averaged almost $3m in revenue. Operating expenses are $2m+ Leaving average operating profit of $900,000. A capital improvement project in 1998 is being repaid at $550,000/yr and improvements to the driving range is being repaid at $94,000 year leaving a net cash flow to the city of a little under 300,000/year. The 94,000/yr reimbursement ends in 2012 and the larger $550,000 ends in 2018 leaving profit to the city of $900,000+ to the city. Doing a first class job of re-configuring the course should increase play from under 70,000 rounds to 80,000 rounds at an average fee of $30/round thus adding $300,000 to the bottom line.It is also likely that the fees can be increased by $5/round adding $400,000 to the bottom line. Operating expenses generally do not change mush with the increase in play because maintenance cost does not change much. These are speculative figures but it is entirely posssible that the course can produce $1.6M per year for the city (after 2018) and the beauty of it is the GOLFERS PAY THE FREIGHT. The city will probably have to advance (loan) the course some money but that will be paid back by the golfers.
When I wasw growing up in Palo Alto all the schools opened their fields to play after school and all day in the summer supervised by at lease one male and one female college student. All of the fields were thus put to use all the time and there was even inter-playground competition. The city has abandoned this use of our facilities and should be resurrected. I see a lot of fields not being used as we used to do and this process could be used to make more playing fields available for soccer etc.
A mix of fields and golf WILL NOT increasse the revenue to the city. Think of what Parks and Rec could do with $1.6m per year all paid for by golfers... It is possible if we are smart and patient.

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