Is this the end of Ontario's suburban golf courses?

By John Lorinc - Published on April 7, 2016
man playing golf
Canada has about 2,300 golf courses, many of which were built in the 1960s.

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During the heady real estate markets of the late 1980s and mid-1990s, suburban developers across North America figured out how to profitably conjoin three interrelated social phenomena: the aging of baby boomers; the growing demand for exclusive and secure tract housing; and, in the case of the U.S., the great upper middle class migration towards the southwest.

The result was a boom in gated golf communities – exclusive, Disneyland-like enclaves which featured high-end housing arrayed in and around the links. The form included over-the-top landscaping and water features, 24/7 security and, in some cases, restrictive covenants that allowed the condo corporation to micro-manage elements such as exterior features on homes and the use of driveways.

There’s mounting evidence, however, that the explosion of golf course development has not just come to a close, but is now going in reverse. These days, some homeowners in suburban areas with an oversupply of courses, including here in Ontario, are fighting to save underused clubs from developers who see the potential to extract a lot more green from all those greens. The question is whether those exclusive private courses are really worth saving, and whether there’s something else that can be done with all that manicured land.              

While gated communities, one of the more insidious forms of white flight, didn’t catch on in Canada in the same way, GTA homebuilders in the pre-greenbelt era developed many such packaged subdivisions, a few with gates and many more without. According to Canadian golf industry figures, there are now about 2,300 courses in Canada, and although construction of new facilities peaked in the 1960s, no fewer than 13 per cent of all courses were developed in the 1990s.             

But in our overscheduled, hyper-distracted age, golf isn’t the game it once was, especially in the business world, where the days of boozy 18-hole outings with a client or two are long gone. A much reported 2014 survey found that the average rounds played per course in Canada had dropped 10 per cent between 2008 and 2013 (the survey prompted Maclean’s to run a story pronouncing the death of golf). Factor in rising green fees and municipal taxes, as well as tougher land-use policies designed to discourage sprawl, and one has the conditions necessary for all those underused clubs to become, as one local developer wryly notes, “un-golfcoursed.”            

According to a Toronto Star account published late last month, numerous GTA golf courses have become redevelopment fodder. The shift in land use has prompted some NIMBY backlash from homeowners who bought close to those courses for the same reason that some people like to buy homes near large cemeteries – they’re large, green and quiet.              

The most notable of these is the redevelopment of Oakville’s Glen Abbey course, a 1970s-era facility that was designed by Jack Nicklaus and has been the host site to the Canadian open for years. Club Link, the owner, floated a redevelopment plan last fall, which would see the transformation of the 230-acre course into 3,000 homes, plus retail and office facilities and residual green space.              

Oakville mayor Rob Burton has publicly decried this move, demanding that the provincial government step in to clarify its land use planning policies for golf courses. Oakville council in early February also passed an interim control bylaw, which essentially slows the approvals process while the city commissions land use and economic impact studies looking at the loss of golf courses.              

Other GTA municipalities have been grappling with similar overtures. According to a spokesperson for the City of Vaughan, a developer has floated the possibility of redeveloping the Copper Creek course in Kleinberg, but the approvals process will involve fording a series of tricky bureaucratic water traps: an official plan amendment, and then an analysis of whether replacing putting greens with tract homes is consistent with the GTA growth plan and the greenbelt protections, among other planning policies. (Under the 2005 Greenbelt Act, golf courses are allowable and encouraged land uses.)            

In the past two years, investor-driven bids to close and redevelop private courses in San Diego, Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas have also run into a variety of pubic objections. As homeowners who bought near the Dallas course argued, they’d purchased their houses in anticipation of a view of a large green space, and now face the prospect of living next door to warehouses and parking lots. That particular fight has landed in court.           

In Calgary, however, the public backlash worked. In early 2014, city officials reversed an earlier decision to close the municipally owned McCall Golf Club, as a means of saving money – the club required nearly $7 million in maintenance – and using the proceeds to upgrade other public courses. An earlier redevelopment plan involved selling half the land to commercial and industrial builders and using the balance to create new public open spaces.             

The key distinction is that the Calgary course (unlike all the U.S. examples and the GTA courses that are under threat of redevelopment) was publicly owned, and local concerns had to do with public access.             

The GTA’s golf course oversupply problem is, in many ways, nothing more than an artifact of a 1980s and 1990s investment bubble that has now burst. The presence of those courses has little to do with the provision of accessible open green space in suburban communities or economic development (Oakville’s argument).

While homeowners who purchased adjacent to those links may feel aggrieved at the prospect of new neighbours, more traffic and the loss of leafy vistas, municipal planners should be looking at these proposals as a unique opportunity to repurpose valuable land so it can play a broader role in those communities. After all, when the average number of players per Canadian course has dropped into the hundreds, and with GTA municipalities looking to build denser and more sustainable neighbourhoods, planners should seize the opportunity to push the owners of these sprawling private facilities to include in their plans accessible public spaces and recreation amenities as a condition of the approvals process.              

For municipal councils constantly grappling with ways to expand the public realm, that kind of mixed use redevelopment represents the hole-in-one shot. 

Urban affairs journalist John Lorinc is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine.

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