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Cobbs Creek Golf Course renovation denied concept approval by Philly Art Commission

Though the clear-cutting of trees was a concern, the commission also got a glimpse of an ambitious, multitiered driving range that includes a restaurant, bar, event space, and golf simulator.

Rendering of a multi-tiered driving range proposed as part of $65 millions in renovation to Philadelphia's Cobbs Creek Golf Course.
Rendering of a multi-tiered driving range proposed as part of $65 millions in renovation to Philadelphia's Cobbs Creek Golf Course.Read moreCobbs Creek Foundation / Blackne

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

The commission voted 9-0 to deny concept approval for two key phases of the golf course overhaul as members expressed concerns about issues including the clear-cutting of trees.

The vote came after multiple residents attending the virtual meeting said they were alarmed by the razing of 100 acres of mature trees that once rimmed Cardington Road. Commissioners said they were also concerned about a lack of Department of Environmental Protection permits or a more clear-eyed look at how trees would be restored after construction of a large, multitiered driving range, youth golf center, and large wetlands restoration.

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

“Whether these projects will contribute, or not, to the betterment of the property is not clear to us,” said Jose Alminana, a member of the commission and a landscape architect. “... That information is not there. In that sense, I cannot in good conscience render an opinion that gives this project conceptual approval.”

The Art Commission falls under the city’s Department of Planning and Development and reviews designs to make sure they are aesthetic and appropriate. It gets involved with construction projects that are on city property or are funded by the city. The Parks and Recreation Department is the driving force behind the golf course renovation.

The driving range and youth golf center are part of a complex, multiphase renovation planned by the Cobbs Creek Foundation, a nonprofit created to raise funds and operate the facility. The foundation has agreed to pay the city $1 for its 30-year lease in return for raising most of the money 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 concerns. 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 made the course unplayable.

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

The foundation plans not only to restore the main clubhouse but to create new “high-quality public space for all Philadelphians.” Construction is expected to begin this spring. Officials say the course, when complete, will generate tax revenue for the city through creation of more than 150 jobs. Of those, 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 a PGA-level course. One of the foundation’s goals is to teach local youth golf at a free or discounted rate. It has plans to connect with three nearby schools.

But the foundation, which has support from some community groups, roused the ire of others in February when it clear-cut trees, tearing down woods many residents used as a sort of park or hiking area along Cobbs and Indian Creeks. Residents were caught off-guard by the cutting or were unaware of any public meeting where it was discussed.

» READ MORE: Clear-cutting woods for Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Course project angers local group and birders

Jeff Shanahan, president of the Cobbs Creek Foundation, told the commission that about 100 acres of trees have been removed. About 40 acres were removed as part of creek restoration and flood prevention. Also removed were 30 to 40 acres that had grown in along the course over decades, and 12 to 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 deny the concept approval, at least until a firm plan is available for further tree removal or replacement. The foundation has submitted some plans to the DEP and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands restoration. One resident said there is now a “lack of community trust.”

Commissioners said that although the tree issue was not really part of their concept review, they still needed answers to other questions. They want to see DEP approval and details about lighting, among other items in what commissioner Carmen Febo San Miguel called a “very complicated plan” requiring multiple approvals from various city agencies.

Although the foundation reached out to the public in meetings and through some community groups, the commissioners felt the effort strayed off course.

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

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