On May 24, a city council subcommittee unanimously recommended to make $14 million available for golf course projects over the next three years. Kris Shackelford, city’s public works department, gave a one-minute presentation. The whole affair took less than five minutes.
Shackelford said $6-$7 million is earmarked for the Torrey Pines south course in anticipation of the upcoming U.S. Open in 2021. Shackelford said funds would “be available for all golf courses throughout the city.” Councilmember Chris Ward asked, “Including, hopefully, Balboa Park?” Affirmative, per Shackelford.
One group that likely wishes Ward had name-dropped another course are the Friends of Presidio Hills Golf. This group of 50 members formed in 2017 with the goal of returning San Diego’s most historic golf course to its former glory.
The Presidio Hills Golf Course is located at 4136 Wallace in what was once downtown San Diego before Alonzo Horton came calling. Horton developed New Town San Diego in the 1860s — what we now call Downtown San Diego.
Philanthropist George Marston was key in establishing and preserving the Presidio Park area. In 1932, Marston opened up the golf course. He restored the deteriorating adobe house about that same time. The Casa de Carrillo was built circa 1810. This historic structure, to the dismay of some, is now the pro shop, complete with soda machine and snacks.
Because Marston spent a lot of his personal fortune to benefit San Diego, the Old Town community plan update — currently in the works — points to designating a George Marston historic district. Marston’s family gave the Presidio Hills golf course to the city. I’m not sure of the exact date, but could only find city lease documentation going back to 1967.
Nancy Wilkins-Diehr, though not a golfer herself, is a member of the group. She lives in nearby Mission Hills and has seen first-hand the deterioration of the course. On May 10, Wilkins-Diehr gave a talk at the Old Town planning group meeting. Several members in attendance expressed their hopes and views. One major point of contention is that the city’s real estate assets department is in charge of the Presidio Hills course instead of either the city’s parks department or golf division. Golf courses under the latter umbrella seem to have a better shot at hooking up with some of that $14 million.
The city is expected to put out a request for proposal in June for a new lease. “The content of that is going to have a big impact on restoration efforts,” said Wilkins-Diehr. The Friends of Presidio Hills would be supportive of anyone who would run the course well. “The current lessee hasn’t demonstrated that he is interested in doing that.”
Some things she would like to see are the city adding some incentives such as donating water and rent as well as a longer-term lease. “No one will restore the course without a promise of a longer-term lease. We think without a change to the current incentives, we will only see more of the same. We understand the current lessee remains interested in operating the course."
According to the city, Donna Abrego had the lease until 2003 when it was signed over to Marty Dine who had it until October 2010. It next went to the current operator Justine Lee in November 2010. His lease was terminated in April 2013. He has since been a month-to-month tenant. Interestingly, in May 2013, it was reported that Lee allowed the golf course to be turned into a paid parking lot on Cinco de Mayo.
According to city documentation, three generations of the Abrego family ran the golf course from its opening in 1932. The sentiment of Friends is that things have gone downhill since the Abregos gave up control in 2003.
The Abrego family has some heavy hitters in their family tree. Not only do they have one of the founding fathers of California in their lineage but they have a link to the old adobe house via a relation. Leo Carrillo was an actor famous for his role of Pancho in The Cisco Kid, a 1950s television series. He was directly related to the original Carrillos that resided on Presidio Hills.
Wilkins-Diehr said forming a non-profit is in the works. She said that there are people interested in donating to course restoration, but first a vision and a plan need to be in place.
Someone else at the planning meeting said Presidio Hills is a money loser. Even though the city only charges the current operator Justine Lee about $850 per month, the revenue doesn’t seem to be enough to make a profit or cover the water bill.
Many of the Friends don’t understand why the use of some city recreational centers is free or subsidized, but a historic course like Presidio Hills is expected to make a profit. One of the big ideas in this vein is to make Presidio Hills the golf legacy of San Diego and part of the family of big money-maker courses, like Torrey Pines.
Phil Mickelson practically grew up on the Presidio Hills course, and Tiger Woods won two Junior World trophies there. So it would seem to be an easy sell. So far it hasn’t been, said Wilkins-Diehr.
Since the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park is closing soon, someone suggested acquiring their golf exhibits and turning the pro shop into a golf museum. Currently there are just some old photographs on a bulletin board propped up against the wall of the back room of the pro shop. There was a consensus that the bathroom needs to be removed — not fitting for the oldest house in San Diego.
I asked if part of the eyesore could be attributed to the much-protested removal of the historic pepper trees that used to line the golf course along Juan Street until 2015. Wilkins-Diehr said that she attributes it mostly to the lack of watering and reseeding.
According to the city, new pepper trees were planted in March 2017. I asked the city if the old trees were cut down in 2015 because of the $8 million Juan Street rehabilitation project. The city said they removed trees solely based on health. A 2015 city report stated that tree root removal was needed to accommodate the rehabilitation project and that this root removal would likely lead to the demise of some trees - causing them to need to be removed.
Another big issue is a new irrigation system. It’s an expensive proposition as well as a sensitive one. Save Our Heritage Organisation called Presidio Hills one of the most important archeological sites in California.
City documentation mentions that in 2009 the irrigation system needed to be replaced due to corrosion and cracks at a cost of $232,000.
The consensus of the Friends group seems to be that the mayor and city council need to get on board to make this work. Though with the slow-going in getting Balboa Park back to its former glory, it’s anybody's guess as to where the golf course falls on the mayor’s “to do” list. Marston was key in establishing Balboa Park.
Friends of Presidio Hills Golf have a meeting planned for May 30. Wilkins-Diehr said the meeting and group is open to anyone interested in helping.