Renovation of the Cobbs Creek golf course was refused by the Philly Art Commission

An effort by a foundation behind a $65 million renovation project at Philadelphia-owned Cobbs Creek Golf Course fell short this week in what could have been a routine meeting of the Philadelphia Art Commission.

The commission voted 9-0 to deny approval of the concept for two key phases of the golf course’s redesign, as members raised concerns about issues such as the clear-cutting of trees.

The vote came after several residents attending the virtual meeting expressed alarm at the razing of 100 acres of mature trees that once lined Cardington Road. Commissioners said they were also concerned about the lack of permits from the Department of Environmental Protection or a more lucid look at how the trees would be restored after the construction of a large, multi-level driving range, a youth golf center and the restoration of extensive wetlands.

It was the first time many had gotten a glimpse of the ambitious scale of the driving range, which includes a restaurant, bar, event space and golf simulator similar to those being built in the suburbs by private companies.

“We don’t know whether or not these projects will help improve the property,” said commissioner and landscape architect Jose Alminana. “… That information is not there. In this sense, I cannot in good conscience render an opinion that gives conceptual approval to this project.

The Art Commission reports to the City’s Planning and Development Department and reviews designs to ensure they are aesthetically pleasing and appropriate. He gets involved in construction projects that are on city property or that are financed by the city. The Parks and Recreation Department is driving the renovation of the golf course.

The driving range and youth golf center are part of a complex, multi-phase renovation planned by the Cobbs Creek Foundation, a non-profit organization created to raise funds and operate the facility. The foundation agreed to pay the city $1 for its 30-year lease in exchange for raising the bulk of the funds needed for a sweeping renovation of the 105-year-old public course.

The course was closed in 2020 due to insufficient funds to address structural and safety issues. A fire in 2016 destroyed the clubhouse. But years of flooding from Cobbs Creek, followed by erosion, washed away sections of the greens and fairways and rendered the course unplayable.

» READ MORE: Shuttered Cobbs Creek Golf Course to get $65 million makeover and community center

The foundation plans not only to restore the main clubhouse, but to create a new “high quality public space for all Philadelphians”. Construction is expected to begin this spring. Officials say the course, when completed, will generate tax revenue for the city through the creation of more than 150 jobs. Of these, 120 will support the golf course and 16 will support the community and education center.

And planners say it will restore an 18-hole course once notable for its inclusiveness – it opened in 1916 and welcomed players of all ethnicities decades before other courses and the PGA allowed people of color to play. The foundation said Philly is the only major city without PGA-level courses. One of the foundation’s goals is to teach golf to young locals at a free or reduced rate. He plans to connect with three neighboring schools.

But the foundation, which has the backing of some community groups, angered others in February when it cut down trees, felling woods that many residents were using as a kind of park or hiking area along Cobbs and Indian Creeks. Residents were caught off guard by the cut or were unaware of any public meetings where it was discussed.

» READ MORE: Clearcut logging for Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek golf course project angers local band and birdwatchers

Jeff Shanahan, president of the Cobbs Creek Foundation, told the commission that about 100 acres of trees were felled. About 40 acres were removed as part of creek restoration and flood prevention. Also removed were 30-40 acres that had grown along the course over decades, and 12-14 acres to make way for buildings and infrastructure. The foundation had zoning board approval, Shanahan said.

About 10 residents spoke at the Art Commission meeting, imploring it to withhold approval of the concept, at least until a firm plan was available for the removal or replacement of the trees. The foundation has submitted plans to the DEP and the US Army Corps of Engineers for wetland restoration. A resident said there was now a “lack of trust in the community”.

The commissioners said that while the question of the trees wasn’t really part of their concept review, they still needed answers to other questions. They want to see DEP approval and lighting details, among other things in what Commissioner Carmen Febo San Miguel called a “very complicated plan” requiring multiple approvals from various municipal bodies.

Although the foundation reached out to the public at meetings and through some community groups, commissioners felt the effort had gone astray.

“It’s a bit alarming if you take a step back,” said commissioner Deborah Cahill, who said the intent of what the foundation presented on Wednesday was good.

“Obviously there’s a disconnect between the community and the design consultant with the architect…it just seems like the overall progress is very questionable at this point.”

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