The efforts of a foundation behind a proposed $65 million renovation of Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek golf course fell short of expectations during a routine meeting of the Philadelphia Art Commission this week.
The commission voted 9-0 to withhold approval of the concept for two key phases of the golf course’s overhaul, as members raised concerns over issues such as tree clearing.
The vote came after several local residents who attended the virtual meeting said they were alarmed by the destruction of 100 acres of mature trees that once bordered Cardington Road. The commissioners said they were also concerned about a lack of permits from the Environmental Protection Department or a clearer view of how trees would be restored following the construction of a large, multi-level driving range, a youth golf center and the restoration of large wetlands.
It was the first time many got a glimpse of the ambitious size of the driving range, which will include a restaurant, bar, events area and golf simulator similar to those being built in the suburbs by private companies.
“Whether or not these projects will help improve the property is not clear to us,” said Jose Alminana, commissioner and landscape architect. “… That information isn’t there. In this respect, I cannot, in good conscience, issue an expert opinion that conceptually approves of this project.”
The Arts Commission falls under the city’s Department of Planning and Development and reviews designs to ensure they are aesthetic and appropriate. It is involved in construction projects that are on municipal land or are funded by the city. The Parks and Recreation Department is the driving force behind the golf course’s renovation.
The driving range and youth golf center are part of a complex, multi-phase renovation planned by the Cobbs Creek Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to raise funds and operate the facility. The foundation has agreed to pay the city $1 for its 30-year lease in exchange for raising most of the money needed for a major renovation of the 105-year-old public golf course.
The course closed in 2020 due to insufficient funds to address structural and safety concerns. A fire in 2016 destroyed the clubhouse. But years of flooding from Cobbs Creek, followed by erosion, washed away portions of the greens and fairways, rendering the course unplayable.
» READ MORE: Closed Cobbs Creek Golf Course Gets $65M Makeover And Community Center
The foundation plans not only to restore the main clubhouse, but to create new “quality public spaces for all Philadelphians.” Construction is expected to start this spring. Officials say that once completed, the course will generate tax revenue for the city by creating more than 150 jobs. Of these, 120 support the golf course and 16 support the community and education center.
And planners say it will restore an 18-hole course once known for its inclusiveness — it opened in 1916 and welcomed players of all ethnicities decades before other courses and the PGA People of Color allowed play. The foundation said Philly is the only major city without a PGA level course. One of the foundation’s goals is to teach local youth golf at a free or discounted rate. There are plans to connect with three nearby schools.
But the foundation, which has support from some community groups, drew the ire of others in February when it cleared trees and downed forests that many residents used as a park of sorts or as a walking area along Cobbs and Indian Creeks. Local residents were surprised by the cut or were unaware of a public meeting where it was discussed.
» READ MORE: Deforestation for Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Course project angers local groups and bird watchers
Jeff Shanahan, president of the Cobbs Creek Foundation, told the commission about 100 acres of trees were removed. About 40 acres were removed as part of creek rehabilitation and flood control. Also removed were 30 to 40 acres that had grown along the course over decades and 12 to 14 acres to make room for buildings and infrastructure. The foundation had Zoning Board approval, Shanahan said.
About 10 local residents spoke at the arts commission meeting, asking them to withhold approval of the concept at least until a firm plan for further tree removal or replacement is in place. The foundation has submitted some wetland restoration plans to the DEP and the US Army Corps of Engineers. One resident said there is now a “lack of trust in the community”.
The commissioners said that while the tree issue was not really part of their policy review, they still needed answers to other questions. They want to see DEP approval and lighting details, including in what Commissioner Carmen Febo San Miguel called a “very complicated plan” that will require multiple permits from various city agencies.
Although the foundation did reach out to the public at meetings and through some community groups, the commissioners felt the effort was off course.
“It’s kind of alarming when you resign,” said commissioner Deborah Cahill, who said the intent of what the foundation presented on Wednesday was good.
“Obviously there is a disconnect between the community and the design consultant with the architect… it just sounds like the overall progress is very questionable at this point.”