When the topic of Seattle’s four public golf courses came up last week, their existence was pooh-poohed by a wide range of critics, from economists to socialists.
The question should be framed like this, said Jacob Vigdor, a UW public-policy professor who has a doctorate in economics from Harvard: “Should thousands of families be denied housing in the City of Seattle so that a few hundred people per day can continue to pursue a hobby?”
Vigdor calculated the city is getting just 0.15% annual financial return on its 528 acres of golf-course land, and therefore should convert them pronto to at least 10,000 units of housing.
Some of the candidates running for Seattle City Council, most vocally Shaun Scott, a Democratic Socialist running in the city’s 4th District, agreed:
“Seattle’s publicly-owned golf courses should be swiftly decommissioned and replaced with housing,” Scott wrote on Twitter. “Any dollar Seattle spends on golf courses is a dollar it is not spending on preparing the land to absorb more deeply affordable housing.”
I’m highlighting these two because their arguments represent the twin sides of an alliance that is heavily influencing City Hall thinking of late about growth and land-use matters. It’s basically development interests plus social-justice advocates.
The alliance is right that we need more housing (which we’re rapidly building). But the cause has become so strident it’s making Seattle lose its mind — to the point we’re now actually considering paving over prime parkland, in the mistaken belief that we’re running out of land for housing.
We are not. Myth No. 1 that has a stranglehold on the city is that Seattle lacks developable land.
You can debunk this myth for yourself by looking out the window, where you will see some of the nation’s leading number of tower cranes. They’re not building on air, right?
The city’s own data shows that we’ve added more than 30,000 housing units since 2016, with another 19,000 under construction. That means the city’s goal of building 50,000 units in ten years, launched in 2016, has effectively been achieved — years early, and before the new upzones of dozens of neighborhoods have had any effect.
Yet despite the biggest building boom in Seattle history, the city says there still is capacity for more than 200,000 more housing units. The city sits at 360,000 total units after its first 150 years. So there is zero reason to start rolling back precious park land for housing any time soon.
The other myth is that Seattle has plenty of parks. We have a great park system because we are surrounded by water. But did you know Seattle devotes less land to parks (12.5%) than cities such as New York (21.7%), San Francisco (19.6%), Phoenix (15.2%) or … Las Vegas (19.4%)?
Yes, Vegas, according to the Trust for Public Land, which does a yearly accounting of city parks and just put out its 2019 rankings.
Even if Seattle decides it’s done hosting golf, the courses — especially West Seattle and Jefferson — would make spectacular city parks. But turn them into housing, and Seattle would drop below even Los Angeles (12.5%) in the park-acreage rankings.
We should be adding parks, not rolling them back. In fact city and county taxpayers are spending millions every year to buy new parkland. Example: A few blocks from the West Seattle golf course sits a vacant lot that could be a six-story apartment building, but the city is spending $4.4 million to turn it into West Seattle Junction Park. It’s doing land-banking like this across the city, which is great. But why make developable lots into parks over here, while making parks into developable lots right over there? It’s incoherent.
Finally this notion of using a financial-return analysis on our parks, of all things, is a terrible idea. The whole point of government is to do things that don’t necessarily make a profit. So suppose we decide we don’t want golf in these parks anymore, for whatever reason. How in any way would that suggest we should get rid of the parks, too?
So hands off, socialists and dismal scientists — and mayors and city council members, too. Seattle’s got room to grow without paving over green space we can never get back.
Plus you can’t call yourself the Emerald City if you’re less green than Los Angeles or Vegas, now can you?