Metro should turn its golf courses into walkable neighborhoods

As Insider Louisville’s Joe Sonka reported last week, Mayor Greg Fischer’s 2020 budget calls for the closing of up to four of the city’s 10 public golf courses. Reports indicate that only three of the courses are operating at a profit, with the courses showing an overall operating loss of $700,000.

With the golf courses on the chopping block, the question has become what to do with them?

The most straightforward approach, potentially, would be to find a private company to run them. Councilman Brandon Coan has floated another idea for the course in his district: donating Cherokee Golf Course to the Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

Scott Martin, the former director of The Parklands at Floyds Fork and current director of River Heritage Conservancy, mused on Facebook that the Cherokee Golf Course would have been a great site for the Botanical Gardens project.

I would like to propose a quite different option: the city should repurpose some of these courses as mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods.

As has been observed in Metro Council hearings on the matter, golf as a sport is losing popularity, and courses across the country are closing because of it. 

“Long term . . . I think we’re going to keep seeing a greater and greater amount of general funds being drawn into golf,” Metro’s budget director David Frockt said.

Jennifer Keesmaat is a Canadian urban planner who served as Chief City Planner of Toronto from 2012 to 2017.
Matthew Yglesias is the author of two books, most recently “The Rent Is Too Damn High” about the policy origins of the middle class housing affordability crisis in America.

Put another way, this isn’t so much a Louisville budget problem or even, as some would like to make it, a government mismanagement problem; it’s a golf problem.

This reality makes closing some of the Metro Parks courses a fundamentally different kind of decision than that of closing the Metro Parks swimming pools.

Closing the public swimming pools in Louisville is a social justice concern. It’s a decision that primarily affects children from low-income families — taking away access to the most popular activity for children nationwide — in a city that is increasingly becoming unmanageably sweltering in the summertime.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but in a city with some of the nation’s worst urban poverty rates and most intense urban heat island effects, public pools offer an important, even necessary social service.

Unburdening ourselves of golf courses, by contrast, is a different kind of matter. It is, in its simplest terms, a response to shrinking market demand.

The Benefits of Mixed Development

Repurposing our city’s public golf courses can serve many needs at once — addressing some of the long-term issues the city will be facing for the years ahead.

As a way to frame the conversation, here’s a map I made of a potential redesign of Cherokee Golf Course, one of the courses being considered for closing. The purple polygons designate mixed-use (commercial and residential) development, the yellow is residential, and the green is remaining park space, with the black lines representing new roadways. 

Cherokee Golf Course. Click to open as an interactive GoogleMap.
Cherokee Golf Course. Click to open as an interactive GoogleMap.

The advantages of such repurposing of the golf course are in the ways it could address issues of public health, affordable housing, environmental stewardship, and Metro budget financing — all of which are chronic, acute problems facing the city.

Public Health Louisville suffers from some of the worst public health statistics of any city in the nation. There are few better way to address this than to build residential spaces with easy, walkable access to both parks and shops, where exercise is built into daily life.

This is the conceptual foundation that both Old Louisville and Norton Commons were built on. Mixed-use neighborhoods improve physical health and, by lowering interpersonal barriers, decrease social isolation and improve mental health.

Affordable Housing The city faces a pervasive affordable housing problem. While homelessness and extreme poverty are probably better addressed through federal policy solutions than at the local level, providing middle and lower-middle income families with housing options in mixed-income neighborhoods is something Metro can do to begin to solve its housing issues.

With the high-end One Park development planned for the intersection of Grinstead Avenue and Lexington Road, a complementary mixed-income, mixed-use development such as what I’m proposing could give more classes of people (and more people in general) access to the restaurants, shops, offices, and jobs promised by that project.

Sustainability Though “green” to the eye, golf courses are generally bad for the environment. Their constant upkeep requires massive amounts of chemicals (herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers), as well as frequent mowing by gasoline-powered machinery.

By building a walkable neighborhood and turning the remaining land from the golf course into a park (or better yet, a nature preserve), the city could support sustainable, environmentally friendly building practices in two ways: (1) walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods produce fewer emissions than their counterparts, and (2) truly “green” park space could help offset urban heat island effects, improve air quality, and even provide a refuge for local wildlife.

City Finances The city’s budget crisis is what necessitated this conversation in the first place. City finances are heavily dependent on property and occupational taxes, accounting for about 20% and 50% of the city’s revenue, respectively. Adding to these totals while chipping away at a six-figure drag on the city’s finances is simply smart fiscal management.

Different Spaces, Different Implementations

I’ve prepared a couple of other maps of replanned, rezoned golf courses to help make the point of what this could look like in different circumstances — one of Crescent Hill Golf Course and another of Iroquois Golf Course.

Not every situation would call for the same kind of implementation. For instance, the Brownsboro Road corridor lacks a large public green space, and so a redevelopment could focus on turning the nine-hole Crescent Hill course into a large park adjacent to the Crescent Hill Reserve, with a small mixture of residences and commercial space.

Crescent Hill Golf Course. Click to open as an interactive GoogleMap.
Crescent Hill Golf Course. Click to open as an interactive GoogleMap.

By contrast, a redesign of Iroquois, an 18-hole course on the north side of the 725-acre Iroquois Park, could focus on improving access into the park from adjacent the neighborhoods while also creating a commercial center to the neighborhood comparable to, say, Woodlawn Avenue in Beechmont.

Iroquois Golf Course. Click to open as an interactive GoogleMap.
Iroquois Golf Course. Click to open as an interactive GoogleMap.

In short, there are a number of ways that this type of redevelopment could play out in practice, depending on the needs of an area. The concept of walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods is adaptable. And it’s an idea the city should explore as it considers what exactly to do with its unprofitable and unsustainable courses.