Developers are snatching up golf course properties—many closed or losing money—with an eye toward combining housing with other uses while often trying to preserve at least some of the greenery for community use.
“We’re seeing more golf course closures than openings because of a huge oversupply and a shrinking golfer base,” said Jeff Davis, founder of Fairway Advisors, a golf course brokerage. “It’s 180 degrees from where I started in the business 20 years ago.”
A golf course development boom began around 1990 and lasted more than a decade. But since 2006, 1,854 golf courses have closed and only 557 have opened, according to Pellucid Corp., a golf industry analysis and advisory firm. Over that period, the total number of courses in the United States declined nearly 9 percent to 13,577.
Much of the golf course expansion occurred in new subdivisions on city peripheries. Developers fetched premiums for home lots, used the extra funds to build a golf course, and then sold the course for less than cost but still pocketed a nice profit, said Jim Koppenhaver, founder and president of Pellucid. Although many of those courses never made money, the growing competition hurt older golf clubs. In some cases, it prompted clubs to take on debt to update courses just as interest in the game began to wane: since 2002, the number of golfers has plunged by 9 million to around 21 million today.
“When you’re putting money into a declining industry, it’s going to extend the pain,” Koppenhaver said. “We overbuilt, and it’s going to take a long time to get back to equilibrium.”
The disruption has created opportunities for developers, but whether their efforts to repurpose a course succeed depends largely on zoning and the ability to win over neighbors. Typically, older private golf courses closer to city centers are zoned for housing, and newer suburban courses attached to subdivisions are zoned for recreation, Davis said. While developers might encounter resistance at either type of course, the challenge to change the zoning at newer courses makes development more challenging, at least until the land becomes unsightly.
“People want to live next to open space, but not necessarily a bunch of weeds,” he said. “So if development is the lesser of two evils, they’ll eventually allow it.”
In Prairie Village, Kansas, an inner-ring suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, VanTrust Real Estate recognized the potential for roadblocks when it bought the struggling 80-year-old Meadowbrook Golf and Country Club in 2010 for $4.2 million. After closing the club a few years later, VanTrust, along with Prairie Village and Johnson County officials, held numerous public meetings to solicit ideas and feedback on how the site should be reused.
Eventually the effort produced a plan for a 45-acre (18.2 ha) mixed-use development surrounded by an 84-acre (34 ha) county-owned park that will feature jogging trails, a playground, open space, a community center, and other amenities when it opens this fall.
“There were a lot of ways to develop the site, and we could have developed every square inch into something, but it wasn’t best for the community or the dirt,” said Richard Muller, an executive vice president for VanTrust.
The plan centered on using $19.2 million in taxes generated by the private project to pay for infrastructure and to provide the county with $10.6 million to purchase and develop the park acreage.
Residents have begun moving into a high-end, 282-unit apartment complex in the $200 million private development, as well as into the first batch of 70 townhouses to be built. About a dozen of the planned 53 single-family homes are under construction, and VanTrust will soon break ground on a 54-room boutique hotel and 5,000 square feet (465 sq m) of retail and restaurant space. A senior housing group plans to phase in 222 independent living, assisted living, and memory care units.
Such a relatively smooth planning process is the exception in most endeavors to redevelop golf courses. Twin Cities’ based developer Source Land Capital faced organized opposition in 2013 when it proposed to put homes on Lakeview Golf Course, a beleaguered 57-year-old, 143-acre (58 ha) golf club in Orono, Minnesota, west of downtown Minneapolis. Lakeview neighbor Bryce Johnson formed Citizens for Lakeview Preservation to fight the developers. The course was zoned residential, but the preservation group urged the Orono City Council to stick to the town’s comprehensive development plan, which classified the course as recreation space. The council instead took a laissez-faire position.
“The city was very concerned about private property rights, and let the development proceed,” Johnson said. “We were pretty bummed out.”
Source Land’s original plan called for 47 home lots of roughly 2.5 acres (1 ha) each and for a portion of every lot to be placed in a conservation easement. After the defeat, Johnson hatched an idea to privately fund a public park in the development, and Source Land liked it. It reduced the number of lots to 46 and sold nearly five acres (2 ha) in another conservation easement to the preservation group for $150,000.
So far the group has raised more than $70,000 in additional funds to develop the park, which overlooks an eight-acre (3.2 ha) lake and features trails, native tree plantings, paved trails, gardens, and other amenities. Source Land matched some of the development funds, and the homeowners association will maintain the park.
“A lot of golf course owners are destitute, and there’s no way for them to turn their courses around,” said Patrick Hiller, a partner with Source Land, which has sold about half the homesites at Lakeview. “But they have to be used for something, and the next best thing is very often rural residential.”
In Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., Wheelock Communities acquired the Hidden Creek Country Club in fall 2017 and announced it would explore changes to the property. That remobilized Rescue Reston, a grassroots organization that a few years earlier foiled a plan by Northwestern Mutual to build homes on the Reston National Golf Course.
In a statement, Wheelock executives Dan Green and Steve Coniglio said they recognized the need to include the community in decisions regarding the future of the golf course. The firm has formed a focus group of some 20 residents and so far has held three meetings to discuss development possibilities, including creating public open space and providing a mix of homes, including affordable, workforce, and senior housing.
The attempts to redevelop the Hidden Creek and Reston National golf courses, which are both privately owned but accessible to the public, stem from the expansion of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Silver Line into Reston and the consequent influx of real estate speculators, said Connie Hartke, president of Rescue Reston. To redevelop the course, Wheelock needs to convince the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to amend the county’s comprehensive plan, which calls for both courses to remain as recreation space.
“Part of the Reston plan was to have concentrated development and concentrated open space,” she said. “No one in Reston ever dreamed that there was a possibility that somebody would be able to build on the golf courses.