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Could Placemaking Become the New Golf? Repurposing Obsolete Courses

03/16/2015 09:01 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

You wouldn't necessarily notice, not unless you've had a particular reason to be paying attention, but the US has way more golf courses than the industry and its enthusiasts can support. Once-flourishing fairways, greens, and clubhouses are being decommissioned all over the place, leaving communities with empty land, sometimes contaminated from years of intensive chemical applications designed to maintain greens and fairways in an artificially pristine condition. Adding insult to injury, in many cases these vacant sites are now attracting illegal dumping and crime. Something needs to change.

Can this surplus land be repurposed in a way that helps give our suburbs a stronger sense of place, that contributes nonsprawling infill development and, at the same time, better-ordered public green space and ecological services? A few signs are starting to point in that direction.

The decline of golf and surplus courses

My first introduction to the subject was a paper written in 2013 for a seminar on law and policy for sustainable communities that I co-teach at the George Washington University School of Law. Attorney Steven D. Soto, at the time pursuing a master's degree in law, wrote that, between 2001 and 2013, an amazing 1,400 golf courses across the country had closed their doors due to economic hardship. Many of these were originally built as part of residential golf course communities, especially during the 1990s.

The problem, as Soto's research showed, was that supply had simply outpaced demand, largely due to fundamental changes in the country's recreational habits:

"Unlike the [previous golf course] construction boom of the 1960s, the courses built during [the 1990s] did not have a corresponding growth in the middle class or even golfers, for that matter. These courses were built purely on speculation, as it was believed at the time that retiring baby boomers would dramatically increase the demand for golf. Unfortunately for the approximately 400 golf courses built each year during this period, this demand never materialized. Unlike their fathers, many baby boomers viewed golf as an old person's game, favoring more active recreation like jogging or tennis."

In addition, Soto reported, increasingly longer working hours have reduced Americans' leisure time to an average of 2.5 hours per day, not enough for many to play "a sport that takes between 3 and 1/2 and five and 1/2 hours to play." According to the National Golf Federation, the average number of rounds of golf played per course, per year, dropped 20 percent over the past two decades. While new courses continue to be built, the number of closures has outnumbered the number of openings each year since 2007.

Soto's paper is not available online, but his findings are consistent with data reported elsewhere, including in a 2013 master's thesis in landscape architecture, submitted by Blake Jeffrey Conant at the University of Georgia. Conant finds that the problems have been particularly acute in the case of residential golf developments, where memberships and other fees from players using the courses have not been sufficient to cover the costs of maintenance and management; residential sales have been used to subsidize course operations. But, when residential sales fell off, course owners were no longer able to meet their debts, and some courses were forced into foreclosure.

Conant quotes an official from the National Golf Foundation for the proposition that "the problem of oversupply will fix itself once the industry loses some 1,500 to 2,000 golf courses." Conant estimates that, as a result, approximately 250,000-400,000 acres of open land will become available for other uses.

Options for repurposing

Conant argues that those new uses should be ecological: urban agriculture, wind energy, tree farming, constructed wetlands, parks, and the like. In some cases, such as when the decommissioned courses are situated on the outer fringe of a metropolitan region, and where regional demand for new housing is weak, that might make sense. The last thing we need is more exurban sprawl in struggling markets.

But, for decommissioned courses that are located not on the outer fringe but within existing suburbs (or even cities), I'm wondering if we can't have it both ways: why not use part of the land for ecological and/or recreational purposes, but part for moderately dense infill development, with a mixture of types and price points for new housing, walkable streets that connect to the surrounding community, and shops and amenities that serve both existing and new residents? Most importantly, why not seize an opportunity to retrofit suburbia and create a strengthened sense of place that many suburbs today need? These are by their nature large sites: we could apply new urbanist development principles to the developed portion, and state-of-the-art environmental principles to the remaining open space.

Each situation will be different, of course, and each will have its own design challenges and market conditions that may limit how far such an idea can go. Perhaps I am dreaming, but my hunch is that this may actually be an idea whose time is arriving in some locations.

Concept and reality

I am, it turns out, a bit of a latecomer to the notion, or at least to the proposition that surplus golf courses can be converted into walkable development. Architect Galina Tachieva, in her delightful Sprawl Repair Manual, devotes several pages to a conceptual repurposing of a failing golf course into a fully developed, mixed-use community:

"The case study . . . shows how a defunct golf course can be transformed into a neighborhood center that will include a mix of residential and commercial uses and a strong civic component. A school, a library, a swimming pool, and various public spaces such as parks and greens punctuate the development's fabric . . . [I]t is bounded by suburban residential subdivisions, giving it a great potential to become a walkable, mixed-use center for the surrounding area."

That, in a word, is placemaking.

Similarly, architect and professor June Williamson, who co-authored the widely heralded Retrofitting Suburbia, has cited the "redevelopment of a 'pod-like' golf course community into a mixed-use, walkable neighborhood" in Carmel, Indiana as an example of "urban design tactics for suburban retrofitting." (More about the Carmel development in a minute.)

Another architect and professor, Miami-based Jaime Correa, has developed a conceptual proposal for turning an ailing golf community in Florida into a combination of built development, suburban agriculture, and environmental idealism:

"The small development [on approximately half the site] includes 8 live/work units, 108 apartments, 55 liner buildings, 236 townhomes, and 94 detached houses. Additionally, its picturesque vernacular arrangement and building placement affords termination of vistas in important civic structures including: a farmer's market, a sub-police station, a meeting hall, and other buildings of greater beauty and urban presence . . .

"While each family contributes to the general welfare and sustainability of the community (with self-sufficient urbanism devices like solar panels, water harvesters, vegetable gardens, compost bins, and more), there are also additional communal services which benefit those whose environmental commitment is limited and less aggressive i.e.: community sponsored agriculture co-ops, solar farms, water recycling projects, etc."

That is certainly the kind of thing I am looking for.

But, to be fair, it may take extraordinarily favorable market conditions and community relationships to turn this sort of ambitious concept into reality. The project in Indiana cited by Williamson, for example, has been met with vociferous community opposition and has reportedly been scaled back considerably from its initial ambition. And, in yet another student paper, a 215-page thesis developed last year at Georgia Tech, architecture and city planning master's candidate Audrey L. Plummer examined the potential for repurposing a closed golf course in DeKalb County, Georgia. She found that a high-density, mixed-use concept supported by the nearby community for the central portion of the site would be financially infeasible because it is located too far from the city center and significant transportation infrastructure. (Her analysis did support the potential for lower-density senior housing on the site.)

Encouraging, if imperfect, examples

Nonetheless, a few built and currently evolving projects are beginning to suggest the potential of golf course conversions to make positive contributions to their communities. In Prairie Village, Kansas, just outside Kansas City, for example, plans are evolving to turn a little over a third of the 136-acre, recently decommissioned Meadowbrook Country Club into a mixture of senior housing, townhomes, apartments, single family homes, an inn, and civic space. The civic space and some -- though unfortunately not nearly enough -- of the housing would, under the currently envisioned configuration, integrate and connect well with the adjacent community. Meanwhile, 88 acres of the site would become one of the largest parks in the greater Kansas City area.

Jay Senter described the project in the Prairie Village Post:

"The conceptual drawing released by the group shows a site plan in which the northern part of the golf course would be preserved as green park space, with two housing developments built on either side of a significant water feature that would be created by expanding the golf course water hazards currently extending from the center of the course to its southern edge. The clubhouse would be retained as a new community center that would be operated by Johnson County Parks and Recreation. Johnson County Parks and Recreation would also administer the park and own the park land.

"The housing developments would feature a group of town homes and a 'new concept' senior living facility in the southwest corner. On the east of the water feature would be a series of single family home lots, more town homes, a luxury apartment complex, and a small inn. Richard Muller of [property owner and developer] VanTrust said the inn as currently envisioned would have 35 rooms. It would be the first hotel in Prairie Village."

The concepts have just recently been released to the public and the visioning process is far from complete. Things may change.

At a community meeting (also reported by Senter) held last week, project leaders said that preservation of mature trees and many existing landscape features would be a priority, and that the developed portion of the property would include alleys behind the single family homes, allowing rear garages and front lawns that visually integrate with the surrounding park. The architecture and design firm Looney Ricks Kiss is assisting the planning process. (LRK was also involved in the planning for The Gulch, a highly successful infill project in Nashville that in 2009 became the South's first project to be certified under LEED for Neighborhood Development.)

Meanwhile, the paper submitted by Soto for my course at GWU Law School highlights an example of a closed golf course being converted into housing and parkland in Prince George's County, Maryland, outside Washington, DC. In particular, following foreclosure on the Marlborough golf club, the new owner is pursuing a combination that in many ways is comparable to the conversion in Prairie Village: under plans that were revised to reflect community input and were current as of Soto's writing (December 2013), about half the former club's 120 acres will be preserved as open space and about half dedicated to the development of 302 town homes and 50 single family homes.

While those development numbers do not constitute high density by urban standards, they will raise the average density of the Marlborough neighborhood; and, in the greater DC area, any suburban infill is a step in the right direction. From a glance at the site plan, it looks like the new residential development will be reasonably well integrated into the pre-existing community fabric, though (as with the case in Prairie Village) portions of the housing feature cul-de-sacs that will impede connectivity.

Most positively, the Marlborough plan emphasizes environmental restoration and green infrastructure on the undeveloped portion of the property. The developer is pursuing reforestation and habitat provision on much of the site, for example, and installing rain gardens, bioretention facilities, and bioswales to manage stormwater.

Finally, in some locations developers are beginning to institute a sort of hybrid approach. Writing two years ago in Streetsblog USA, Tanya Snyder suggested that one way of simultaneously accommodating burgeoning demand for senior housing and reducing financial burdens for struggling golf courses might be to retain but shrink the size of the courses, while adding housing and mixed-use development appropriate for an aging segment of the population on the land made available by downsizing. That's not the same as decommissioning the course altogether, but it offers a middle-ground possibility that contains some potential for strengthening sprawling suburban neighborhoods with infill. Two real-life examples are summarized on the website of golf course designer Bobby Weed.

Imagining the right combination

While none of these examples is perfect -- Correa's concept comes the closest, for my values -- the whole premise of thoughtful suburban infill at scale is still an emerging field. The idea of using old golf courses for redevelopment is newer still, in its intellectual infancy. But I think the idea holds promise: I can imagine the right location, the right developer, the right market conditions, and the right planner coming together to create a sort of reconceiving of the garden suburb: one with placemaking at its goal, and smart urbanist and environmental practices as the tools to help us get there. I would love to see it happen.

Thanks to Melissa Bez Cheatham for the inspiration behind this article.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid's latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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