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Glen Abbey Golf Club faces potential closing for redevelopment

Oakville residents worry that redeveloping Glen Abbey would cause traffic problems on an already busy road next to the course, while also shrinking the city’s green space.

Glenn Lowson/The globe and mail

While all eyes were on the 18th-hole playoff between Jhonattan Vegas and Charley Hoffman for the Canadian Open title, a battle was brewing over the green itself.

The Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont., has been the semi-permanent home for the Canadian Open for four decades, but a proposal to redevelop the course loomed large over the late-July tournament in the face of local opposition to the plan.

Glen Abbey's owner, ClubLink Corp., which owns 39 other golf courses, first proposed turning the historic course into housing in late 2015. At the time, it caught many people in Oakville and in the golfing world by surprise. Many residents see the course, designed by American golf legend Jack Nicklaus in 1976, as an integral part of Oakville's history and a landmark beyond its use as a golf course. It is also the country's only stadium golf course, and no place has hosted the Canadian Open more often.

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Read more: ClubLink files to redevelop Glen Abbey into residential community

But the course is situated on 92.7 hectares of prime real estate in an affluent city in the Greater Toronto Area. Rai Sahi, the chief executive officer of ClubLink, is a big name in the commercial real estate business; he is also chairman and CEO of Morguard Corp., a large, TSX-listed real estate investment company that has interests in 57 residential properties with more than 16,000 homes.

ClubLink wants to build 3,222 housing units on the property, including nine apartment buildings and an additional 122,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. ClubLink would leave approximately 50 hectares of the property as green space. The RayDor Estate building, which houses the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and Museum, is excluded from the redevelopment plan.

A local group formed to oppose the redevelopment, with Save Glen Abbey signs popping up outside the venue during the Canadian Open as thousands descended on the city for the tournament. Some residents argue the loss of Glen Abbey would be a blow to a city with few other widely known landmarks, something the city council seems to agree with as it moves forward with a plan to designate the property a heritage site.

Fraser Damoff, a spokesperson for the Save Glen Abbey Coalition, said the golf course is part of Oakville's identity and sets it apart from other cities in the GTA. "It's one of the main tenets of what it means to be from Oakville … for me, it's part of the fabric that Oakville residents think about when they think about their home."

Residents also worry the redevelopment would cause traffic problems on an already busy road next to Glen Abbey, while also shrinking Oakville's green space. (When it first opened, Glen Abbey was in the middle of farmlands. Now, Oakville has expanded so that homes line the roads around the golf course.)

However, the proposed redevelopment recently cleared one hurdle, with the Ontario Municipal Board ruling in ClubLink's favour, saying their zoning application was complete. The next step for the proposal is a city council meeting in late September where councillors will weigh the merits of the proposal and hear from relevant stakeholders.

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A ClubLink executive could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

Mayor Rob Burton said he is waiting until the council meeting to pass judgment on the merits of the proposal. He said the redevelopment of Glen Abbey – which entails a change in Oakville's official plan because it does not account for the growth that would come with the new housing – will all come down to one question: "Will we maintain the vision we unanimously created when we passed the Oakville plan or will we be persuaded or required, depending on the different eventualities, to change that vision?"

Hosting the Canadian Open 29 times in the past 41 years is also a boon for the city in terms of exposure it otherwise wouldn't get. "The Canadian Open is broadcast all over the world," Mr. Burton said, "and for several days if you're watching it, you're going to hear announcers say things like, 'Beautiful Oakville,' and there's some value in that."

Bob Weeks, a senior reporter for TSN who has covered 30 Canadian Opens, said the loss of Glen Abbey as a home for the tournament would feel similar to when the Toronto Maple Leafs moved out of historic Maple Leaf Gardens in the late 1990s. He said he hopes the redevelopment doesn't go through but that it will probably happen.

"At a certain point, time has moved on and the Canadian Open will find other homes, whether it be at existing courses or they build a new course and new memories will start to be created," he said. "The history of Glen Abbey will live on whether the course is there or not."

The debate is not over, and the regulatory and legal saga will likely drag on for years regardless of Oakville City Council's decision to give the project the go-ahead or not. In the meantime, ClubLink invested an estimated $500,000 over the past year to rebuild all the bunkers and the club will once again host the Canadian Open next year.

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As for the Save Glen Abbey campaign, it did grab one high-profile endorsement from Mr. Vegas, who won his second consecutive Open at Glen Abbey. "I'm going to be one of the biggest voices to try to keep this course open," Mr. Vegas said. "Especially if I keep winning here."

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