SCGA Public Affairs

MONTEBELLO: A CAUTIONARY TALE

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

If you are a Los Angeles area public golfer trying to secure a tee time in a region identified by the National Golf Foundation (NGF) as the lowest concentration of golf per golfer in the Continental United States you have taken note that one of the mainstays you have relied upon for close to 100 years closed a few months ago – the Montebello Golf Course mere yards off the 60 Freeway just a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

You have no doubt heard rumors about what comes next for the site, or more accurately what is envisaged as coming next. Given the opaqueness of the situation, we are going to do our best to ferret fact from rumor, and we are going to do so because the issues underlying the closure of a publicly owned golf course smack in the middle of the highest demand market in the nation are the issues that surround so many of these debates in multiple urban environments up and down the state. Dare we suggest in many large American cities outside of California as well – the “existential” challenge as it were posed by the too common perception of golf as an activity that uses too much land that uses too much water to serve the too few who have had too much for too long.

Much of that “perception” is misperception, particularly in the municipal sphere, but to the degree to which too many believe it, the difference between perception and misperception is the veritable distinction without difference. And truth be known, golf’s “advocacy” task is much more about touching the hearts and minds of the 90% of the population that doesn’t play golf than it is the stuff that most think is the job of the game’s “advocates,” things like bills, laws, and regulations. Those “things” are more result than cause of some of the game’s discontent.

Of course, addressing root causes of problems is a Herculean task. It’s much easier to nibble around the edges of results; otherwise known as the classic reactive response. And once we do our best here to figure out what may really be going on in Montebello, we’ll certainly do our best to nibble around whatever best options for the game may be available within the context of a frame considerably shrunk by all those elements of the game’s existential challenge.

But first things first. What the heck is actually going in Montebello?

Here is the cover story. A classic old 18-hole regulation golf course surrounded by many municipal golf properties owned by various cities and one very large county (e.g., Alhambra, Downey, Los Angeles County) that continue to enjoy financial success has been so badly mismanaged over the years that the resources necessary to restore it are beyond the financial reach of its owner City of Montebello. Or at least well beyond the city’s political appetite to put all its recreational eggs in one golf basket. Needing to find large infusions of revenue from sources other than a regulation 18-hole golf course cum community clubhouse in order to retain some semblance of golf and/or other public recreational amenities, the city embarks on an ambitious 3-phase plan, the 1st phase of which involves the following: A 9-hole regulation golf course, 6-hole 3-par course, putting course, and small golf shop/coffee shop to service these amenities; the 2nd phase of which involves the razing of the old driving range in favor of a TopGolf entertainment complex; the 3rd phase of which is murky at best but smart money would be on another hotel abutting the 60 Freeway.

The ”cover” story may strike you as it strikes us – about the best result golf could hope for in a city where far more persons see golf per the “misperception” embedded in our little ditty about the game’s existential problem than see it as a community-wide amenity.

Phases 1 and 2 were put in motion by the Montebello City Council first in late summer by the sale of $16.7 million in general obligation bonds to fund the golf amenities and second in December by the release of an RFP to seek a “Master Developer to Prepare and Implement a Strategic Master Plan for the Montebello Golf Course Complex” in conjunction with finalizing a deal with TopGolf.

Ah, but there’s a rub – a big rub. Co-terminus with all this in 2022 the city adopted a new housing element that was approved by the California Department of Housing and Community Development that “identifie(d) the golf course as an opportunity site for residential development to meet the City's Regional Housing Needs Allocation (or "RHNA") for the 6th Cycle (2021-2029).” More specifically, “the Golf Course was identified to accommodate residential development with 50-80 units per acre densities.”

All of this was summarized in the December RFP seeking a “Master Developer,” a PDF copy of which is available by clicking here. It’s a fascinating read and not a long one. If you do read it, take special note of the language that introduces the subject of meeting the state’s heightened housing construction mandates by throwing the century-old parkland golf property into the mix of properties that Montebello can use to meet them:

“The City originally acquired the Golf Course through a series of transactions in the early 1940s. Since then, the City has bypassed opportunities to develop the Golf Course with viable uses based on the fundamental understanding that the property must be reserved for public golf course purposes, as noted in Resolution No. 1026, approved by the City Council on December 1, 1941. Located just minutes from downtown Los Angeles, the Montebello Golf Course is strategically located adjacent to the Interstate 60 (I-60) Freeway with the potential for mixed-use development with a range of housing types, including affordable housing consistent with the City's commitment to providing affordable housing to address the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (“RHNA”)1 .”

Hmm? If you read it the way we do you might assume that the city’s longstanding “fundamental understanding that the property must be reserved for public golf course purposes” is no longer the city’s understanding of the matter, creating all sorts of possibilities for a master planner to suggest what our 1st take on the 1st Phase of this project was – that $16.7 million won’t cover the costs associated therewith and the ambitious golf component must be significantly reduced or perhaps eliminated entirely. Rumors abound that many elements of Phase 1 are already being jettisoned. You might also assume that what was for many years after 1941 not possible has been made possible, if only arguably possible, by myriad changes to the Surplus Land Act in the last four years – changes that have given increasing primacy to housing over open space/recreation in an effort to mitigate a critical housing shortage that Californians by a wide margin find to be the state’s highest priority problem.

Unless the date for receipt of proposals was extended, they were received 9 days ago. We don’t know who responded, and even if we did, it will take some time for the city to evaluate them and select a “Master Planner.” Who that master planner ends up being will tell us something about the prejudices likely to suffuse the issuance of a final “Master Plan.” We’ll be watching, and we’ll be curious whether the “Planner” bothers to reach out to anyone or any organization in the golf community capable of providing the golf specific knowledge it seems reasonable to conclude should be part of any plan to chart the future of a property that has provided golf to a golf starved community for close to 100 years.

Some will look at what we have described here as a “bait-and-switch” scheme. After all, the golf course is now closed. Certain military strategies have a great phrase to describe this tactic – “facts on the ground.” Others will look at it from the opposite perspective – a city trying its best to maintain as much normative golf as possible within some difficult financial and political constraints. Most will likely look at it somewhere in the middle – a well intentioned city keeping its options open.

We see elements of all three in what the heck is going in Montebello. We also see what we always see in these situations. The resulting “Master Plan” cum final disposition of this once venerable municipal golf property will turn more on passions and politics than on law or normative administrative practice.

And that’s why we will continue to preach to anyone who will listen that the central job of golf “advocacy” is reaching the hearts and minds of the general body politic. Where those hearts and minds are inclined to find golf something than enhances their lives and communities, things will go well for the game. Where those hearts and minds are inclined to find golf as something passe or of little value to their lives and communities, “things” are likely to go badly. And if too many “things” go badly in the very communities where the game has put so many of its resources and so many of its efforts into growing and diversifying its base, it’s hard to see the game denting that damaging perception as something that encumbers too much land that uses too much water to serve the too few who have had too much for too long.

Period; hard stop!

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