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San Diego’s Increasing Golf Course Redevelopments Hit Potential Hazard

Debate Over One Approved Project Pits New Housing Against Residents' Density Concerns

By Lou Hirsh CoStar News September 15, 2021 | 4:23 P.M.

The struggle across California to address the shortage of housing that's often opposed because of resulting complaints about the creation of too much density is playing out in the latest golf course that a developer is trying to convert into a mixed-use project in San Diego.

The San Diego City Council approved a developer’s $300 million plan to convert a closed golf course into a project with 1,200 apartments and condos that's generating opposition from nearby residents. One of at least seven projects in the region now aiming to repurpose shuttered fairways into housing, it comes as more courses are closing because of the rising costs of water.

"We need to support development of affordable housing, especially in an area where it's not at an optimal level," said Councilmember Raul Campillo, as the council approved New Urban West's project, called The Trails, by a vote of 8-1 after more than four hours of sometimes heated discussion.

The dispute in San Diego has played out in other regions and is likely to be seen in more cities and counties. Real estate economist Alan Nevin told CoStar News that golf course conversion projects are increasingly being seen in water-supply-challenged states where housing demand is also rising, not only in California but also Arizona and Nevada, among others.

Golf course owners are finding it more feasible to sell to developers than try to operate golf facilities in the face of waning usage relative to the high number of existing facilities, and also rising costs to water and maintain those courses.

“It’s happening nationally,” said Nevin, director of market research and valuations for development consulting firm Xpera Group in San Diego. “In Southern California it costs a golf course operator about $500,000 annually just to pay for the water, about double what it cost a decade ago.” Trails Project

The Trails project also includes neighborhood-serving commercial spaces, parks and recreational amenities on the former site of Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club, an 18-hole golf course that closed in July 2018.

The project was approved earlier this year by the San Diego Planning Commission after the developer reduced the residential unit count from its original 1,600. But it is opposed by groups including the Carmel Mountain Ranch community planning organization and a homeowners association in the northeastern San Diego neighborhood. More than 50 residents spoke for and against the project during Tuesday’s online council meeting.

Jonathan Frankel, vice president and project manager with Santa Monica, California-based New Urban West, told council members that 15% or 180 of the project’s residential units would be set aside as affordable to residents making less than 60% of the regional median household income, in an upscale neighborhood that otherwise has no designated affordable housing. “Today the property is serving no beneficial use at all — shuttered, fenced and inaccessible to the community," Frankel said.

Opponents want the project revised to put rental units closer to the commercial elements and closer to a nearby existing public transit center, and also expressed concerns about new vehicle traffic being brought to the busy neighborhood near Interstate 15. Residents also want lower overall density and larger buffer spaces placed between the project’s public spaces and existing homes near the former golf course.

Opponents were joined Tuesday by Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, whose district includes the golf course site and who was the lone member to vote "no" on the project.

Seven projects in the San Diego region, in various stages of planning, now seek to turn closed golf courses into mixed-use residential developments. The largest of those is developer Hines’ $3 billion redevelopment of the Riverwalk Golf Course in Mission Valley, approved last year by the city and planned to include 4,300 residential units on 200 acres, 10% of which will be set aside as affordable apartments. That project also includes 152,000 square feet of retail, 1 million square feet of offices and 100 acres of parks and open spaces.

Nevin noted the Hines project generated relatively little resistance considering its size, largely because the Mission Valley site has few existing homes on nearby properties. That’s not the case with other golf courses that were built over the decades as part of larger residential neighborhoods in San Diego and many other regions.

For instance, less than 2 miles from the disputed Carmel Mountain Ranch project, a group of residents last month filed a lawsuit seeking to block a 536-unit, single-family housing project on the site of the closed DoubleTree Golf Course in the Rancho Penasquitos neighborhood, contending the city did not sufficiently consider environmental impacts. Developer Lennar received city approvals earlier this year for The Junipers, planned as a 55-and-over residential development.

The golf-related projects arrive as the nation's eighth-most populous city is under pressure to boost housing production to meet state mandates calling for the overall region to increase current supply by 100,000 units by 2029, to help alleviate a serious statewide shortage of affordable units. To do so, city officials have said, San Diego would need to double its current annual pace of production to at least 13,500 new units per year.

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