In Season 2 of Revisionist History, I did a podcast about the golf courses of Los Angeles: “A Good Walk Spoiled.” I consider it (somewhat immodestly) to be one of the better Revisionist History episodes. In it, I explored a question that has always bothered me when I visit Los Angeles. Smack dab in the middle of some of the priciest real estate in the world—Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, Santa Monica—are a good half-dozen private golf courses. What I always wondered was: how can they afford their property taxes?
After all, the taxes on a decent-sized Beverly Hills half-acre lot might easily exceed $100,000. But the fancy golf clubs of Beverly Hills run in excess of 200 acres. Some more than 300. The taxes on a piece of property that massive must be astronomical! How do private golf clubs stay in business?
If you haven’t listened to the episode (and you should, if not!), I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I give you the answer. It's obvious. Private golf courses survive in Los Angeles because they don’t pay property taxes. Not real taxes, anyway. The people who belong to fancy golf courses tend to be rich and powerful, and the one thing that rich and powerful people are really good at is cutting side deals with their rich and powerful friends, in order to make it easier for them to do the things rich and powerful people like to do. Like play golf.
Just how the wealthy golfers of Los Angeles pulled off this stunt is the subject of the podcast. (Making sense of it involves, among other things, an extended discussion with a philosopher about the mythological parable of the Ship of Theseus.)
So why am I bringing this up now? Because someone came up to me in an airport the other day, told me that “A Good Walk Spoiled” was their favorite podcast, and asked me: Whatever happened to the golf courses of Los Angeles?
The question left me utterly flustered—because, I should say, I never expect anything to happen because of my podcasts. I mean, I’m not Joe Rogan. I do not move entire swaths of the listening public with my utterances. But then I said to myself: What if this is my fault? I went to all this trouble to shame the rich people of Los Angeles over their golf courses—over the fact that in a city notorious for its lack of parks, a handful of rich white guys are hogging all the open spaces on the west side of Los Angeles. But did I give them a roadmap for how to repair their wrongs? I didn’t. I was too busy being clever and provocative.
So here goes. My plan to show the golfers of Los Angeles how to make amends.
Let me start with a brief history of my obsession with L.A.'s golf courses. Originally, I wasn’t going to do a podcast episode about this. Originally, I had a far more sinister idea.
The swankiest of all golf courses is Los Angeles Country Club, LACC. The course covers 250 acres immediately abutting downtown Beverly Hills. If you go up the roof of the Waldorf Astoria, which borders the course, and look down you can see it in its entirety. It is magnificent; as beautiful a piece of urban green space as there is anywhere in the country.
So here was my original, sinister idea. Los Angeles Country Club is nearly impossible to get into. It’s not even clear how many members there are—one source says 800, another says 1,500. So let’s estimate that there are around 1,000 members. To get in, you need to go through round upon round of interviews, present references, and prove that you are as rich as everyone else. (I’m guessing it doesn’t help if you are a little bit too Jewish or black or brown.) But whatever. I figured I could finagle my way in.
Then, once in, I would turn around and become the leading advocate in Los Angeles County for a repeal of the side deal that lets private golf courses out of paying property taxes. I would turn traitor! Now why would I do that? Here’s my thinking. A few years ago, a big real-estate expert I know estimated that, conservatively, the land under the club is worth $20 billion. But that was before the big COVID spike in real-estate prices. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it's now worth $25 billion. Without their side deal, LACC would have to sell out to developers. And who would the money go to? The members, of course—including yours truly. Do the math. $25 billion divided by 1,000 is $25 million. This was going to be my get-rich scheme!
But the problems with this scheme should be obvious.
First of all, this all began as a crusade against the extraordinary privileges held by the wealthy golfers of West L.A. But all I’m doing here is teaching those same wealthy golfers how to unlock the value of their club’s real estate. Property-tax arbitrage! A financial maneuver that enriches me to the tune of $25 million but at the cost of also enriching 999 already-rich guys from West L.A. to the tune of $25 million each isn’t a terribly good “trade,” as the Wall Streeters would say.
Then there’s the fact that the impetus for this whole rant against private golf courses was that Los Angeles needs more parks. There are a vanishing few places to go running in Los Angeles, for example, which makes no sense. But my idea turns one of the great urban spaces in America into a high-end housing development. Would I like to get a quick $25 million, after we force a sale? Sure. But every time I drove down Wilshire Boulevard and saw McMansions where there could have been a gorgeous park, a little part of me would have died. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?
So. What to do? Here’s an aerial photo of LACC. (Oh my. So beautiful!).
OK. Now see my revised property plan.
LACC agrees to pack it in as a private golf course. They sell a few hundred building lots around the perimeter of the entire course. I’m going to be aggressive here and say that sale nets them $15 billion. Just think of it! Every apartment building and house backs onto that amazing view. This is premium property! That works out to a sweet $15 million payday for all 1,000 members of the LACC.
And in the land in the middle, where there were once rolling fairways and pampered putting greens, there will now be soccer fields and baseball diamonds and running tracks and tennis courts for the long suffering citizens of Los Angeles.
I know what all you LACC members are saying. Where am I going to play golf?
I just made you $15 million. Get over it.