Private golf courses across the GTA are being gobbled up for development

Pave golfer’s paradise, put up a subdivision


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York Downs Golf Club

Is the verdant golf course behind your house one of the last urban oasis or just the next perfect spot for a subdivision?

Increasingly, these prime (and often privately owned) green spaces are becoming new developments, often to the frustration of neighbours who thought they’d always have a beautiful view and municipalities who assumed a stable, long-term land use.

Two years after members agreed to sell Markham’s York Downs Golf Course for more than $400 million, plans are before Markham City Council to integrate it into the urban fabric. The course occupies more than 415 acres at Kennedy and 16th upon which developers propose to house nearly 7,500 people in more than 2,400 homes. They’re not the first golf course owners to trade tee times for townhomes, and they won’t be the last.

We’ve already seen the same pattern up in Newmarket, where Glenway’s 60 acres are set to house more than 1,500 new residents, and in Aurora where the Highland Gate course is heading in a similar direction. 

Both courses lent their names to the surrounding neighbourhoods, and now they’re becoming neighbourhoods themselves. The most prominent such plan in the region is to develop Oakville’s historic, Jack Nicklaus–designed Glen Abbey Golf Club. Apparently, nothing is sacred.

Markham has set one of the highest intensification targets in the region, aiming to house 60 per cent of new residents within the existing urban boundary. So, putting 7,500 new residents at Kennedy and 16th is a big win in those terms. It may seem paradoxical to suggest paving over green space could be a good thing, but after all, golf courses aren’t virgin forests. On balance, we still end up ahead if we put sustainable, well-designed communities in their place rather than more sprawling communities on fields out in the sticks. 

That said, building a large subdivision in the middle of established neighbourhoods requires careful thought to make sure there is adequate transportation infrastructure, schools and so on.

On the one hand, these courses are beautiful, not-quite-natural spaces, but it’s easy to see how tempting they are for developers. Golf is inherently land intensive, and that’s leaving aside the environmental impacts associated with keeping so much grass so green so a select few can enjoy its environs. With land supply in the GTA dwindling, it’s only natural they’re becoming hot spots.

Business Insider magazine, as part of its “Death of Suburbia” series, recently noted the closure of over 800 golf courses in the United States at least partly due to millennials having less interest in the game than their predecessors. They point to a Washington Post article saying 18- to 35-year-olds play golf 35 per cent less than they did a decade ago, when Tiger was king. 

In addition to those demographics, we also have the pesky facts that you can’t even use the course half the year to throw in to the mix alongside a booming population and government policies emphasizing new construction in already built-up areas. Yes, there are policies that require preservation of natural and green spaces, but if you own a few dozen acres in a very popular area, why wouldn’t you run a development proposal up the flagpole? Instead of sitting vacant, a closed course around here is likely to become a swank subdivision faster than you can say, “Fore!”

It’s worth mentioning that at least some golf courses in our area aren’t going anywhere; they were built where they are for a reason. The Eagles Nest course in Vaughan, for example, sits on the former Keele Valley landfill site, and no one’s putting houses on top of that. Richmond Hill’s public Bathurst Glen is on the Oak Ridges Moraine, and it’s owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. It will be effectively there forever too. People have been teeing off at Copper Creek for less than 15 years, and while plans have been floated to build up to 800 homes there, nine of the 18 holes are on protected Greenbelt lands.

As I’ve written here before, what’s really defining our communities these days is change, whether it’s the bungalow next door becoming a McMansion, that old strip mall turning into a condo or the golf course you thought would always roll gently away behind your backyard becoming a subdivision. 

They’re constant challenges for residents and the people we elect to confront, but they’re nothing to get teed off about.

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Post City Magazines’ columnist David Fleischer is a long-time journalist and currently an urban planner living in York Region.

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