What Do You Do with an Old Golf Course?

“Golf course urbanism” has been an obsession of mine for a while, ever since reading Robert Fogelson’s Bourgeois Nightmares, a short and punchy history of pre-war suburbia. I wrote about it on this very site back in the early days:

As The New York Times pointed out recently, one reason why golf is waning in popularity is our faster-paced, multi-tasking, short-term lifestyles.

“You can manage to get a dinner on the calendar with a guy maybe once a quarter, but you can meet him once a week for a workout,” Mr. Wassong said. Golf, he added, “takes too much time.”

(Instead, as the Times also somewhat mockingly described, its become a “trend” to have business meetings while “spinning” at the gym.) People are just too plain busy to drive out and spend an entire afternoon putting around the middle of nowhere.

Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up in a suburb dominated by golf courses (we had one across the street), but to me, suburbia and golf are married at the hip. Not only were early suburbs literally built around golf courses, the golf course imaginary imbues suburbia in general. Think of landscaped green lawns, the artificial nature of a single-family home on a gently rolling green landscape. Were it not for the windows, many ‘burbs are quite literally golfable. (As is Detroit, it turns out.)

Perhaps it’s fitting then that “golf course urbanism” is beginning to wane here in the core cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. As the Highland Villager has been reporting for years, Saint time I wrote my previous post that both Saint Paul and Minneapolis own their own golf courses, and not just a few, but a whole bunch of golf courses (four in Saint Paul, even more in Minneapolis). And for years, many of these city-owned courses have been lowing money.  (Q: when was the the Golden Age of St Paul golf courses? A: 1975?) But given the budget constraints of both cities, and the waning interest in golf, this seems really stupid.


Privatize the Golf Courses?

One of the potential solutions, proposed by the city council so far, is to privatize the golf courses. Essentially, you’d take the golf course currently owned by the city and sell it to a privately-run golf company.

Here’s a quote from a local neighborhood guy:

Knox said he had no personal objection to privatizing the Como Golf Course as long as it remained used for golf.

“Our main concern is in the past that it not be repurposed for additional parking or anything like that,” he said. “The overall feeling is that the golf course is good for the neighborhood. Other than that … it’s kind of wait-and-see as far as what kind of information we can get from the city.”

Essentially, you’re kicking the can down the road, saying that the problem with these golf courses is that the city is too hampered by vague restrictions. Yet, as this recently article about metro golf points out, private courses are losing money too.  This seems like a short-sighted that loses the city’s ability to write its own destiny..

And that leaves Minneapolis and Saint Paul with a whole bunch of non-lucrative, centrally located space on their hands. The real question that both cities should be asking: what is the ideal way to use this land?

I have a good friend who lives right on the North border of Minneapolis’ Hiawatha golf course. It’s Minneapolis’ best example of a centrally located, money-wasting land use. Other than privatizing the golf course (easy but dumb), how could Minneapolis re-use this space? What should Saint Paul do wtih their semi-useless golf courses (Como and Phalen)?

Here are my thoughts:

1) Keep the Park Land — As my golf course-proximate appreciates, these existing spaces have a lot of (so-called) green space. Plus, I’m an avid cross-country skiier, and (when there’s snow and I have a car) go skiing around these golf courses during the (few) winter months as much as is humanly possible. One priority should be maintaining this park space for those who use them for non-golf reasons.

2) Increase density — 43rd Street along Hiawatha, or Lexington along Como Park, are places that could use a lot more density. Actually, this is true for any of the golf courses, which are often in homogenous single-family areas. One of the big challenges in increasing density in both towns is that it’s difficult to displace existing homes with apartments, but in this case you’re using “greenfield” land. That’s a far simpler political challenge.

3 ) Increase Walkability — As the Marshall Avenue sidewalk debate illustrates, the edges of golf courses aren’t necessarily very walkable. Even if they have sidewalks, they’re incredibly boring spaces, typically a shoddy fence lined with under-maintained trees. If you had homes and shops along these streets, you’d start to weave together some of the holes in our urban fabric.

4) Make Money — Currently, most of these city-run golf courses are losing money, so almost any change (other than building huge stadia) is going to be an improvement. But developing part of the land along the streets will boost the tax base, and I’d imagine that the city would pocket a nice amount from selling the land to a developer.

5) Increase Diversity — Basically, once you meet these criteria, I don’t care very much what happens to these golf courses. George Carlin has a great rant about giving golf courses to the homeless, and this is one of the opportunities to actually follow through with increasing some of the housing and class diversity of what are often the most homogenous neighborhoods in the city. (Note: Hugo Chavez actually did this down in Venezuela.)

It’s time to stop losing money on a dying game, and start using these unique spaces to improve our cities.


Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.

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