Perhaps there is a silver lining in a flood-control proposal that would place a new levee on part of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course and force some redesign.
The project is intended to improve the downstream flow of the San Francisquito creek watershed during severe storms in order to prevent a 45-year flood similar to the 1998 flood when the creek overflowed its banks and caused $28 million in damage.
The City Council discussed the levee proposal Monday and how it would affect the golf course. The intent was to review options for redesigning holes to accommodate the new levee, but the discussion broadened into whether it continues to make sense to continue offering a full, 18-hole course at the site.
Since only 20 percent of the players who use Palo Alto Muni are residents, some council members rightfully believe it is time to reassess the highest and best use of this property, which was built in the 1950s and has seen declining use in recent years.
The flood control plan comes from a joint-powers agency made up of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, as well as Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. The most basic course redesign option, which would require reconfiguring six or seven holes on the course at an estimated cost of $3 million, would be paid for by the authority. The city's share would be minimal, about $300,000, but would increase to $1 million-plus if more elaborate options are chosen. A mid-range option to reconfigure eight and a half holes, and add eight new greens would cost the city about $1 million in addition to what is covered by the flood-control fees.
The council engaged in a lively discussion about the future of the course, which is situated between the Baylands Athletic Center baseball park and the Municipal Airport, and the wisdom of sinking more money into the course.
Member Larry Klein was on target when he noted that the city is already providing a very substantial "land-use subsidy" to local golfers, when compared to other potential recreational uses.
And with much of the benefit going to non-residents, who make up some 80 percent of the players, Klein correctly raises the question of whether the golf course in its present form remains a viable program.
Klein got some support from Mayor Sid Espinosa, who said the council should "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," the mayor said.
Councilmember Pat Burt said he liked the proposed post-levee construction redesign of the course, but offered a plan that would slice off about 15 acres for playing fields.
The use of any public land for recreational activities is a "subsidy" when compared to more intensive commercial uses; the question is whether that subsidy is aligned with community needs and participation rates. Golfers will argue that green fees generate substantial income that offsets the city's cost to operate the course, more so than other types of recreation such as tennis, soccer or softball.
But the small percentage of Palo Alto users, combined with the large amount of land committed and the mediocre course design, raise legitimate questions about the future of the golf course.
At the very least, the council should consider whether continuing to operate the full 18-hole course still makes sense, or whether an improved 9-hole course might both adequately serve golfers and make possible the future development of a new athletic field complex.
Among the challenges are the loss of revenue during the levee construction and the $550,000 a year in debt service that is now being paid from revenue from the golf-course income.
Another complication is that the course irrigation system is failing due to high salt intrusion, which is resulting in regular main-line breaks. The council will have to decide whether it can afford to make irrigation system improvements beyond those paid for by the flood-control funds.
With the flood-control project set to begin in 2013, the city has very little time to bring the options before the public for the broad discussion it deserves. But Klein is right; now is the time to re-examine the city's commitment to the golf course and whether it is aligned with the needs and desires of Palo Alto residents.