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How Rethinking the Golf Course Could Help Seniors Age in Place

1:02 PM EST on January 9, 2013

The 15,753 golf courses in the United States take up more space than half the state of New Jersey. And though they devour so much land, much of it in suburbia, the sport is foundering -- in part because of the enormous amount of time and distance it requires. Some real estate professionals and experts on aging have come together to suggest a solution both for the decline of the game and the land use problems posed by these massive courses: Build mixed-use development inside them.

“The simultaneous collapse in the value of homes and golf courses may make such suburban redevelopment, retrofitting, and regreening possible on an unprecedented scale,” wrote Jane Hickie of the Stanford Center on Longevity and James F. Dausch and Edward Bennett Vinson of Resolutions Real Estate Advisors in an article last month for the American Artchitectural Foundation. “Redevelopment could provide solutions for the financial problems that many homeowners associations and golf course operators are struggling to address through infill housing and retail more suitable for an older population.”

Hickie has written a book on independent living for seniors, and she knows that most seniors live in suburbia and want to stay in their own communities as they age. So here’s the challenge she laid out: “How do you transform suburbia quickly enough to deal with the coming tsunami of population change?” Repurposing golf courses, she says, could play an important role.

Many residential developments, often targeted at retirees, have grown up around golf courses, charging a premium to be near the course. But with the collapse of housing prices, especially in the drivable suburbs, and the decline in the game, homeowners’ associations are often left holding the bag for astronomical maintenance costs. By bringing retail, dining, office space, and other recreational opportunities to golf courses, Hickie suggests, developers could buoy home values and help pay for the costs of the land. These amenities could also attract a different demographic, whether or not they’re interested in golf, and the new residents could be accommodated in denser housing in the town center.

Separately, Hall of Fame golfer Tom Kite has also entertained the idea of shrinking golf courses. He's speculated that the size of the courses may have become the sport’s Achilles heel. It can take upwards of five hours to finish 18 holes, and fewer and fewer people have that much time on their hands.

The size of golf courses actually works against active lifestyles for seniors. Golf could be a game that involves a lot of walking, but the vast distance even between the last green and the next tee box has led most people to drive carts between holes, rather than get exercise. “Carts are used because of bad golf course design,” Hickie said. “Because it takes so long to play; it’s a way to speed it up. What is does is to allow people not to walk.”

Hickie said that when golf originated in Scotland, courses were located along walkways so that people could play a few holes on their way into town. “They were not in isolated, gated communities designed only for elites,” she said. “They were a way the whole community could get recreation.”

By shrinking courses to make them walkable and adding compact town centers, golf course communities could become far healthier places for the seniors that live in them.

In an article in the Orange County Register last spring, real estate consultant Mark Boud envisioned just what Hickie, Vinson, and Dausch are proposing. “Golf was so dramatically overbuilt in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that I believe we'll continue to see a conversion of older public courses to residential," Boud said.

Hickie said she and her team of real estate developers and entrepreneurs have approached the PGA with the idea and are planning to follow up next week. She said before going to people interested in aging or in sustainable communities, she wants people who love the game of golf to get on board so that they see her plan to shrink course size is not a threat to the game but a way to save it. (In fact, she told Streetsblog, Hickie and her co-authors come at the problem not just from an interest in land use but a love of golf. “It isn’t good for the game of golf to have abandoned courses,” she said.) From there, she hopes the “wellness insurance” world will be interested – companies like Humana and Kaiser that have taken a major interest in prevention and overall health.

She hopes developers and residents of golf course communities will be receptive. “It’s a real opportunity to talk with people about how they want their communities to be, going forward,” Hickie said. “Because people are going to be very afraid that this kind of proposal would affect the value of their investment -- and yet they know that, with the collapse of housing values and the enormous price of maintenance of these golf courses, that they need to do something different.”

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