Is Now the Right Time to Allocate Money to Mission Bay Golf Course?

This piece originally appeared in Times of San Diego.

By Chuck Dunning

In golf, I’m what you call a “hacker,” in that I’m a golfer with a handicap north of 30. Despite this, I like to get out with friends to chase the ball around and share the grief, and we enjoy playing at Mission Bay Golf Course four to five times a year. It’s a nice course, well-kept, and suitable for our level of play. In fact, I got my first and only hole-in-one on the 14th hole at Mission Bay.

But as a taxpayer and a 44-year resident of San Diego, I question the feasibility of the city’s investment of $10 million in this facility, with $3 million earmarked to replace the Mission Bay Golf Course clubhouse in 2021. I know of at least two restaurants or lounges that have failed in the space, and I’m guessing there have been others. Why would another succeed?

Also, why spend $10 million on the golf course while a larger land use planning process for Mission Bay is underway? The golf course is part of the 460-acre northeast corner of Mission Bay Park that’s included in the De Anza Cove Revitalization amendment to the Mission Bay Master Plan, which was crafted over 25 years ago.

There are a number of alternatives being considered for the area that focus on increasing shoreline access, community recreation, ecotourism, replacing lost habitat for fish and other wildlife, restoring the area’s original wetlands at the mouth of Rose Creek, improving water quality, and providing resiliency against rising sea levels. There will also be provisions for guest camping, and more parkland with trails and viewing areas. In the grand scheme of things, these components may be of far greater value to the public than the golf course.

The final version of the amendment will eventually be presented to the California Coastal Commission, which has some specific standards for coastal development. In fact, the Coastal Act states that the goals for the coastal zone are to “assure priority for coastal dependent and coastal-related development over other developments on the coast.”

By their definition, “coastal dependent” is any use that needs to be on, or adjacent to, the water in order to be functional. “Coastal-related” means any use that relies upon coastal dependency. When Mission Bay Golf Course was built in 1955 the California Coastal Commission didn’t exist. I’m not sure a golf course, no matter how well-kept or nice, would meet today’s standards.

In addition, there are nearby alternatives to Mission Bay Golf Course. Just 2.7 miles to the east is the similarly scenic, city-owned Tecolote Canyon Golf Course, with 18 holes winding through the canyon. The Tecolote complex is roughly the same, walkable size as Mission Bay, and about the same level of difficulty with plenty of parking and a lighted driving range.

Tecolote Canyon also has features that Mission Bay does not, like a pro shop and a grill and bar. A further 8.5 miles to the southeast is the nine-hole course in the city’s crown jewel of Balboa Park. A lovely, open course for golfers of all levels with striking views of downtown and San Diego Bay, Balboa Park also has an iconic clubhouse and pro shop.

Before dredging got underway in Mission Bay in the late 1940s, there were over 4,000 acres of tidal wetlands. These wetlands sustained thousands of bird species and marine life, maintained water quality, reduced erosion, and served as natural flood prevention. Sadly, over the last seven decades, those 4,000 acres were reduced to just 40 acres, mostly found today in the surviving Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve in Pacific Beach.

The good news is, at this moment, San Diegans have an opportunity to reverse the ecological mistakes of the last 75 years by increasing Mission Bay wetlands to over 220 acres — and in the process, put our bay and our park in a stronger position to withstand the rising sea levels we know are on the way.

Our community needs an upfront investment now if we hope to preserve and expand these wetlands before rising sea levels inundate them. Restored natural wetlands will immediately go to work cleaning our water, offering unique recreation, and providing habitat. With the right plan we can increase shoreline access, restore the area around the mouth of Rose Creek and improve water quality, develop greater public parkland, restore bird and fish habitats, and protect our community against sea level rise.

Should we really spend another $3 million, and eventually $10 million on a facility that isn’t “coastal dependent” or “coastal-related” in this potentially vibrant corner of Mission Bay Park, especially when there’s a perfectly fine golfing alternative less than three miles away? There can still be birdies in Mission Bay Park, after all — just a different kind.

I hope Councilmember Jennifer Campbell and other city leaders can come together in support of the “Wildest” proposal for Mission Bay, oppose renovations to the golf course at this time, and remove the earmarked $3 million for Mission Bay Golf Course to find a better, more critical and deserving use for these funds at this uncertain time.

Chuck Dunning is a volunteer with ReWild Mission Bay – and a 35 handicap golfer. He lives in La Jolla.