Topgolf’s flagship San Diego Bay location is moving forward

The prospect of a top golf flagship location serving food, beverages and premier views of San Diego Bay and the downtown skyline is becoming more and more rooted in reality.

On Tuesday, Port of San Diego commissioners voted unanimously to begin the environmental review of the driving range project, an action that will begin a formal review of the entertainment operations on an 8.5-acre site along North Harbor Drive. Commissioner Danielle Moore apologized from the vote, citing a potential conflict of interest.

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“We hear a lot of public comment about … the Wadden Sea and public trust and public land and people. And the longer I’ve been on this commission, the more I think when I hear these comments (is): “What people? Who is the public? “I’ve never spoken about a project … that has garnered (as) great interest as this project,” Commissioner Rafael Castellanos said, citing the agency’s duty to hold the San Diego Wadden Sea on trust for everything Californian. “Give people what they want.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever go to a top golf,” he added. “But there is tremendous demand for people to come and be entertained at a venue that could attract half a million people to the Port of San Diego annually.”

Founded in 1999, Topgolf International popularized a video game-inspired version of the classic driving range where small groups eat, drink and compete in ‘batting bays’. Players score points by hitting balls equipped with technology that measures distance, elevation, speed, and other variables.

The company was acquired by Carlsbad’s Callaway Golf Company in March 2021 in an all-stock deal valued at more than $3 billion. Shortly thereafter, Callaway changed its name to Topgolf Callaway Brands. The company said it will open its 86th Topgolf location on Friday.

The proposed top golf facility is partially an open-air structure that includes a restaurant, bar and meeting rooms, outdoor terraces, three levels of driving range bays, and additional games and entertainment.

The East Harbor Island project, which has an estimated cost of $50 million, is modeled on Topgolf’s largest U.S. prototype, company executives told commissioners.

The draft project description submitted to the agency earlier this year calls for a 70,700 square foot, three-story facility with 102 shot bays opening onto a 4.5-acre outfield and 10 underground golf targets. The venue also includes multiple restaurant and bar areas, outdoor decks, event spaces and 293 parking spaces. As proposed, the driving range will be surrounded by a polyester barrier net system suspended from poles up to 50 meters high.

“We have the know-how and financial strength to open and operate these successfully, and all locations are important to us and their communities. However, this San Diego Harbor Island project will be very important to us emotionally,” said Chip Brewer, President and CEO of Topgolf Callaway Brands. “This is our home. We love San Diego. And that will be a hallmark for us, and we also believe that it would add value to the city we call home.”

The board’s vote of approval does not constitute project approval, but does initiate an environmental review, a requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act and a step that may take up to two years. The analysis is being conducted in parallel with lease negotiations for the site, port officials said.

A rendering within the proposed 70,700 square foot Topgolf facility. The three-story facility would include 102 bays alongside restaurant and bar areas, event space and 293 parking lots, according to a project brief submitted to the Port of San Diego.

The Port of San Diego has made room for top golf on the basin side of East Harbor Island, across from the San Diego Airport where car rental companies used to operate. The proposed location is directly west of Liberator Way and faces east with views of downtown, the Coronado Bridge and San Diego Bay.

The site became available in early 2019 when developer Oliver McMillan pulled out of a plan to redevelop 48 acres of land and water with a hotel, “botel” and retail project.

Topgolf, which had eyed a Wadden Sea venue since 2015, re-entered the picture with their vision for a driving range on part of the abandoned project site. Initially, port commissioners, including Castellanos, were unenthusiastic at the prospect of an expensive entertainment venue taking over a sizeable chunk of the agency’s best land. However, they agreed in late 2019 to enter into an exclusive negotiation agreement with the company. The contract was not executed until January this year as the agency considered how to undertake a broader redevelopment of its waterfront properties.

Earlier this year, the port’s appetite for the venue changed significantly, fueled by a belief that the attraction will bring hundreds of thousands of people to the waterfront every year.

“Located across from the airport with spectacular views of downtown, the highest and best use is clearly not a crowded parking lot for rental car operations,” said Tony Gordon, the port’s real estate director, at Tuesday’s board meeting. “The early redevelopment efforts for East Harbor Island recognize that a key to the successful redevelopment of the East Basin is a use that draws people to the area. We believe that Topgolf is that use.”

The project received positive reviews from Commissioners Castellanos, Dan Malcolm, Ann Moore, Frank Urtasun and Michael Zucchet. In addition, members of the public, most of whom spoke on behalf of regional agencies, non-profit organizations and unions, broadly expressed their support for the Topgolf venue. However, some commentators objected to putting the trading company on the back burner.

“In my opinion there couldn’t be a worse place for a driving range than Harbor Island. Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley, Kearny Mesa are all excellent locations. I think (top golf would be) great there,” said Paul Krueger, who is a proponent of parks and open spaces. “This is the land of the people. This is the port of the people.”

Topgolf also intends to build a second location in San Diego on top of an existing driving range in the Sorrento Valley.