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.