It's not the bunkers or the soil mounds at the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course that have been causing headaches for city officials in recent years but the myriad bureaucratic hazards that they've had to navigate as part of a long quest to reconfigure the Baylands links.
This week, however, the effort reached two long-awaited milestones as the city finally received the needed permits to start construction and the City Council swiftly approved a construction contract. The two developments mean that a project that has been in the conceptual phase since 2012 will soon become reality, with work set to start in July.
If all goes as planned -- admittedly a dicey proposition given the project's history -- the newly rechristened Baylands Golf Links at Palo Alto will be open for business by October of next year.
The $11 million reconfiguration is one of two major infrastructure projects that will be taking place in the Palo Alto Baylands over the next few years. The San Francisquito Creek flood-control project, in which levees will be rebuilt and an existing channel in the area adjacent to the golf course will be widened, is also poised to move ahead.
Though the objectives of the two projects are drastically different, each ran into significant delays with obtaining governmental permits, particularly when it came to what is known as the Section 401 Water Quality Certification from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. It took years of analysis and design modifications for the creek Joint Powers Authority, which is driving the flood-control project, to secure the water board's permission, which it finally did earlier this year.
The green light for the golf-course reconfiguration, which is intertwined with the creek work, was dependent on the creek authority's receipt of its permit. Last week, city Public Works staff finally received a draft permit from the water board. Since then, it has also received the draft version of the Section 404 Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Joe Teresi, senior engineer with Public Works, said he expects to have all the final permits by June 24 and noted that the flood-protection project is now "fully permitted and the contractor is under contract to begin construction."
The project includes modifications to all 18 holes; restored wetlands areas; a shift away from irrigated turf and toward natural Baylands landscaping; expanded recreation areas and a new bathroom. In addition, the course has shrunk slightly, to 156 acres, as some acreage will be used primarily for flood control and another portion has been carved out for addition to the Baylands Athletic Center.
Rob de Geus, director of the city's Community Services Department, called the design created by course architect Forrest Richardson "exceptional" and unique in its emphasis on the Baylands' native grasslands and wetlands. It's also a much more environmentally friendly course than the city has now, de Geus said.
To push the effort forward, the council enthusiastically approved on Monday by an 8-to-0 vote (with Marc Berman absent) a construction contract of $11.9 million with Wadsworth Golf Construction Company, which includes a base construction cost of $10.8 million and about $1.1 million in contingency costs for unanticipated work.
Though the costs of this project have been steadily rising, city officials hope the reconfiguration will ultimately pay for itself, with fees from the course used to pay off the nearly $500,000 in annual debt service that the project would require over 30 years. The city's financial analysis suggests that the course would lose money in 2017 and 2018 before turning a profit in 2019. According to the analysis, the new facility would bring in about $94,000 in net revenue in 2019, which would then jump to $406,000 in 2020 and remain between $370,000 and $400,000 every year until 2026.
These figures are predicated, however, on the golf course attaining the type of "Wow!" factor that council members have long talked about and becoming a popular destination for golfers. As the Public Works report notes, the "re-opening of the reconfigured golf course and rebranding as Baylands Golf Links relies heavily on the course being the highest quality public golf course experience in the region and a local economy that will continue to support high incomes, corporate presence, and visitation to the area."
These risks notwithstanding, the golf project earned support from all eight council members, including avid golfer Karen Holman and acknowledged non-golfers Liz Kniss and Cory Wolbach. Holman was particularly enthusiastic about the benefits of golf, saying it's unlike almost any other sport because people of all ages can participate and anyone who plays can exert themselves to whatever extent they want.
"You can throw clubs on your back and carry them or take it easy and ride in a cart," Holman.
It also allows people to enjoy nature and meet "the nicest people," she said.
Wolbach, who does not golf, was more cautious and noted that the city has a very constrained budget and a long list of infrastructure projects that it wants to pursue. Even so, he said he supported the project, even if the new course ends up not making money. He noted that the city doesn't make money on Foothills Park, though that is an important amenity for the community.
"Because we have a golf course in Palo Alto, I'm not going to be the one to say, 'Let's get rid of it because we want to save some money,'" Wolbach said.
While it remains to be seen whether the renovated course gets the type of usage that the city envisions, golfer Sheila Robinson said Monday that she was confident that the course would well serve Palo Altans of all ages. Robinson told the council about her son, who discovered golfing as a middle school student. It was the day after the shooting at Columbine High and, too shaken to go to school, he instead picked up his grandfather's set of clubs and went to play a round with Robinson.
Robinson said her son went on to play golf for Palo Alto High School, winning the "most improved" award three years in a row, and continues to play to this day, she said.
"Golf was a turning point for my son," Robinson said. "Embracing golf empowered him emotionally, physically and socially. I believe there are many students in the Palo Alto school system who don't know it yet but who will love the game of golf."