Tree removal and a campaign donation shine light on Cobbs Creek Foundation’s $1 lease agreement

The Cobbs Creek Foundation drew scrutiny for chopping down hundreds of trees and making an improper political donation. What’s inside its lease with the city?

File photo: Many trees were felled as part of the restoration and renovation of the Cobbs Creek golf course and community engagement center, as seen on Feb. 27, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File photo: Many trees were felled as part of the restoration and renovation of the Cobbs Creek golf course and community engagement center, as seen on Feb. 27, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Revelations that the foundation leasing the city-owned Cobbs Creek Golf Course in West Philadelphia cut hundreds of trees for the course renovation and made what appears to be an improper campaign contribution have raised questions about the city’s deal with the group.

A spokesperson for the Cobbs Creek Foundation calls the prohibited contribution by a nonprofit  to Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. “a mistake.”

WHYY’s PlanPhilly received a copy of the lease agreement the city finalized in December with the foundation. Here are the highlights:

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Cobbs Creek Foundation is paying $1 in rent

The West Conshohocken-based Cobbs Creek Foundation, headed by Chris Maguire, Chris Lange, and Jeff Shanahan, is paying the city just $1 for what could be a 70-year lease. The property has an assessed value of over $90 million, according to the city’s property records website.

“The City does not seek a market rate rental payment,” the lease reads. “Rather, the City has entered into this Lease because Tenant’s mission and Tenant’s obligations under this Lease support important public policy goals of enhancing learning, athletic, and employment opportunities for Philadelphia youths and of providing exceptional recreational opportunities for Philadelphia residents at affordable cost.”

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The century-old Cobbs Creek Golf Course was an esteemed public course that welcomed players of color decades before other courses and the PGA did, but it closed in 2020 over safety concerns. The foundation aims to restore the site to its former glory, returning the course to its 1916 design, building a self-sustaining business model, and keeping the course accessible to the community with affordable fees for city residents and youth programs in partnership with area schools.

After an initial 30-year term, the foundation can renew its lease for up to two 15-year periods, then for another 10 years, for a total possible term of 70 years.

“The lease between the City and Cobbs Creek Foundation is an exciting step forward in the $65 million plan to restore the historic 1916 golf course, rebuild over 3 miles of creek and tributaries, create a 37-acre wetland, and build a community and education center to celebrate West Philadelphia’s role in the history of Black professional golf,” Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson Maita Soukup wrote in an emailed statement.

The lease ensures city oversight, but allows the foundation to keep some things secret

The lease allows the city to inspect at any time the foundation’s records of its golf and educational programs (including where participants live) and the foundation’s sources of revenue, tax returns, and filings as a charitable organization. It also requires the foundation to submit to the city annual audited financial statements and semiannual reports, including funding of a caddy scholarship program and the foundation’s career development programs for high school students.

One thing that can remain secret under the lease: the names of people and organizations that donate to the foundation “on condition of anonymity.”

The foundation’s own donations have recently come under scrutiny. In September, the Cobbs Creek Restoration & Community Foundation gave $2,500 to Friends of Curtis Jones Jr., the City Council member who represents the district encompassing the golf course, according to the city’s campaign finance reporting records. But 501(c)(3) organizations like the foundation are prohibited from making political donations, and can lose their tax-exempt status for doing so.

The Grid magazine blog first reported the donation — as well as several others made around the same time by people associated with the foundation. Having its nonprofit status revoked would mean a default of the foundation’s lease for the city property — grounds for the city to terminate the lease.

The Cobbs Creek Foundation has admitted making the donation, calling it a “mistake.” Michael Rodriguez of Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, who is handling public relations for the foundation, told PlanPhilly that the group did not realize it was prohibited from making such donations as a tax-exempt nonprofit, and began the process of having the money returned before Grid’s reporting. Rodriguez said that the foundation investigated the cause of the issue internally, and that it plans to file the appropriate disclosures with the city’s Ethics Board and the IRS.

“While this was an inadvertent mistake, the Foundation takes this matter seriously and is adopting stringent protocols to ensure such a mistake is not repeated,” he wrote in a statement on behalf of the foundation. “The Foundation apologizes for its error and recognizes the critical nature of maintaining its integrity.”

Asked whether the city is concerned by the donation, Soukup wrote, “It is our understanding that the donation was made in error and has been returned.”

The current lease dramatically expands the renovation project

The massive renovation of the historic golf course will include construction of several new buildings and reconfiguration of the playable areas. The foundation has promised a driving range and a new education center opening to the public in 2023. A new nine-hole course, a short course, and an 18-hole championship course capable of hosting PGA Tour events are expected to open in 2024.

The city originally signed a lease for the Cobbs Creek Golf Course renovation with the foundation in 2019. But the foundation later realized how time-consuming the changes to the floodplain and creeks — and obtaining the necessary approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the city’s Water Department — were going to be. The foundation determined that it would need to lower the depth of a 50-acre floodplain to prevent floodwaters from reaching the course itself, as well as cut “several hundred” trees for the course reconfiguration. The foundation also discovered a private oil pipeline on the property, which it wants the owner to move to a lower depth.

The 2019 lease outlined $20 million in initial renovations, which the foundation had raised by the end of last year. But the foundation now says initial renovations will cost more than three times that: $65 million.

The foundation has begun preparing the site for construction, but still has several things to check off its to-do list. Two items required by the lease that the foundation still needs to submit to the city are a capital replacement schedule and a capital reserve account.

Residents will pay less than out-of-towners to play. The city still doesn’t know how much 

A discounted rate for Philadelphia residents, compared to visitors from the region or across the country, was one of the mandates of the 2018 ordinance that authorized the city to negotiate the lease agreement.

The lease requires the foundation to tell the Department of Parks & Recreation what it plans to charge city residents ahead of time. Once the foundation submits the fees, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell will have to approve them. If the parties disagree, the Parks and Recreation Commission will get the final say.

The fees city residents will pay can increase by no more than 2% per year, or the rate of inflation, whichever is greater.

The lease agreement also includes a community access and engagement plan that promises Philadelphia residents will be given preference for some tee times. Golf clubs and other equipment will be offered to residents at low or no cost. Youth will be able to play for free or “minimal cost” through the First Tee program.

The plan promises job and scholarship opportunities “targeted to the golf course’s immediate vicinity,” and “an active role” for members of the surrounding communities in designing the programming vision for the new Education Center. It promises meeting space at the golf course will be available for community use.

If the foundation does not comply with its community access and engagement plan, it’s considered a default on the lease — but one that can be corrected.

The Water Department should be involved in the foundation’s stream restoration plans

The lease stipulates that the foundation must use “best faith efforts” to alter Cobbs Creek in a way that “to the greatest extent reasonably possible” minimizes flooding not only on the site but in areas upstream and downstream. But the details of the foundation’s plans to reduce flooding and erosion are not yet clear.

A significant part of the foundation’s plan to renovate the often-waterlogged course is to “restore and rebuild” more than three miles of Cobbs Creek and its tributaries by removing invasive vegetation, creating up to 37 acres of wetland including 10 square miles of drainage areas, and removing sediment from the creek beds. City officials maintain this will address flooding in surrounding residential communities, but advocates have raised concerns about the potential impact on communities downstream.

The lease requires the foundation to “eliminate” impervious surfaces on the property and replace them with surfaces that water can sink into rather than run off, which should reduce flooding.

The city Water Department will need to approve the foundation’s design plans for its floodplain restoration project. The lease also requires the foundation to submit these plans to the department when they are 30% and 60% done.

So far, the Water Department has approved an erosion and sediment control plan for the foundation’s first phase of work, including the tree removal, which Soukup said is compliant with state requirements. The Water Department also plans to review post-construction stormwater management plans after each phase of the foundation’s project.

The foundation is still designing the wetlands area and will be applying for federal, state and local permits, Rodriguez said.

“All obligations included in the lease can be waived at any time at the discretion of the land owner, which sometimes occurs in the course of carrying out a major capital project,” Soukup wrote in an emailed statement.

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