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Santini's Plan To Turn San Juan Landfill Into Golf Course Sparks Controversy

By Gabrielle Paese

April 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

One of San Juan's more scenic pieces of real estate sits nestled between the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean (Plaza Las Américas) and the pristine San Juan Bay, port of call to hundreds of cruise ships.

More than 150 acres separate the mall from the bay, and the land's three summits offer spectacular views of the city.

A developer's dream?

Guess again. It's the San Juan city dump, officially closed in December of 2000 after nearly 50 years of operation.

The Environmental Protection Agency spearheads a campaign to find new life for old garbage, although options are extremely limited. Because the mounds of garbage tend to shift as they settle, buildings are out of the question. The yucky stuff also can leak into the water table and gives off methane gas as it decomposes, making any kind of development a risky business venture.

Environmentalists agree that the best second use for old landfills, or brownfields, is green space -- either in the form of parks, playing fields or golf courses.

With San Juan's dump officially closed and in the process of being "capped," or sealed with a layer of clay, San Juan City Mayor Jorge Santini has revived an old plan to put a nine-hole golf course and a training academy on the landfill.

This is the same idea that was proposed to Gov. Sila Calderón back when she was mayor of San Juan. She vetoed the plans, preferring instead to envision the mountains of dirty diapers and old soda bottles as a Peace Park, complete with an 8,000-seat amphitheater.

This is not the first time that Mayor Santini, of the New Progressive Party, and Gov. Calderón, of the Popular Democratic Party butt heads. With the populares running the country, it&Mac226;s unlikely Santini will ever get a green light from the government&Mac226;s Solid Waste Authority to re-work the brownfield. In fact, the island has a long history of good ideas stalled in the gate due to bickering between the two political parties.

The government's Solid Waste Authority officials claim that the piles of garbage, in their current configuration as three large mountains, could never be re-shaped into a golf course.

One of the agency's engineers, Andrés García de la Noceda, who worked with Calderón when she was mayor, said the garbage was piled up in three mountains with the Peace Park in mind. He said a power sub-station, a drinking water line and a sewer line all run just yards away from the festering piles.

Jim Aardema, president of, a company that specializes in building golf courses on landfills, said that building a golf course on San Juan's landfill would be difficult, but not because of the dump's structural limitations.

Still, Aardema admitted he's not so sure he'll be participating in Santini's bidding process, which closes on May 15.

"If they're serious they should make the contiguous land available so a developer could come in and do a mixed use project," said Aardema. "Our concern is the political situation."

Solid Waste's executive director Luis Rodríguez Rivera agrees. It's his agency that issues the permits to refurbish the dump.

"Will any company bid on this project if they aren't assured that they're going to get the necessary permits to construct?"

Roy Case, a golf course architect who specializes in turning landfills into golf courses, said he's not sure a golf course could be built on the dump in its current configuration.

"The last time I saw the landfill was four years ago and at that time the landfill was by no means closed," said Case. "But my guess is that if the engineers had their way they filled the landfill to the maximum. I do closure plans for existing landfills and my guess is that this far from it I doubt it would be easy."

Aardema also said he's not sure who will bid.

"When we met with a consultant to the city we said we thought a large scale project would be the best approach," said Aardema. "If it's just a small golf course, I doubt it will draw any developer interest."

Meanwhile, Solid Waste's Rodríguez Rivera said not only has his agency not issued any permits to build a golf course on the dump, it hasn't received any requests.

"It's curious to note that the mayor accuses us of having a campaign to harass him," said Rodríguez Rivera of the state-run agency. "But we have not received any kind of proposal to put a golf course on the landfill. As far as we know right now, the only plan for that landfill is as a Peace Park."

Santini first revealed his plans during a press conference last year. The idea of a golf course met with mixed reviews.

Puerto Rico Golf Association president Sydney Wolf said he endorses a project that includes golf as long as the course is accessible to the public.

Wolf said his organization has 5,000 registered golfers with another 3,000 to 4,000 people in Puerto Rico who regularly golf. Factoring in the tourist trade, an estimated 500,000 rounds of golf are played in Puerto Rico annually, generating an estimated $50 million in revenue -- mostly for the hotels.

Golf is obviously a money-making venture. So what city wouldn't want to get in on the action?

However, with 14 courses already in operation in Puerto Rico and almost eight on the way, you have to wonder -- will the island soon reach a saturation point?

Will we soon have a glut of golf courses?

Wolf says yes.

"And that's good because that will drive the price of the game down. The golfer is going to be better off."

According to National Golf Foundation statistics, Puerto Rico is the most expensive place in the United States to play golf. A round of golf at one of the island's private courses averages about $100. The cheapest of Puerto Rico's 14 golf courses charges $250 annually for membership (Aguirre), while the priciest (Río Mar) runs about $4,000 per year.

In addition to the proliferation of courses, Puerto Rico also boasts some of the best-designed links in the world. Starting with the Robert Trent Jones-designed courses at the Hyatt Dorado Beach to the George and Tom Fazio courses at Río Mar, the island is a veritable golfers paradise -- albeit an expensive one.

That said, will Puerto Rican golfers, who are accustomed to playing on top-notch courses, really line up to get a shot at what could be sub-par municipal links in San Juan -- even if they can play for less?

"I think there's a way to determine whether a golf course on a landfill will be successful," said Jerry Fife, Phoenix Golf Administration Supervisor. "Ask yourself, if you were going to build a [public] golf course in your city, would it be successful? That's the biggest thing Cave Creek [an Arizona course] has going for it, the residents wanted a golf course in that area."

Will Puerto Rico's 5,000 or so golfers, who are already accustomed to paying as much as $4,000 a year to play golf on perfectly groomed greens, take interest in a municipal course?

"Sometimes the issue is to determine what you want to accomplish politically," said Fife. "If it's an open park facility, the taxpayers are sort of footing the whole bill. The golf course, however, can actually generate revenue."


Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the most recent recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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