Philly Art Commission grants final approval for part of Cobbs Creek golf course project

The Art Commission was a hurdle for the project. But after including more environmental considerations, the project team finally got approval.

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)

The renovation of the historic Cobbs Creek Golf Course in West Philadelphia cleared a hurdle Wednesday.

The city’s Art Commission gave final approval to designs for a driving range and education center — after questioning or pushing back on the plans at other points this year.

“I’m confident that the issues that have been raised by the commission have been addressed,” said Art Commissioner Carmen Febo San Miguel. “I’m pleased with some of the adjustments that have been made and how the project is really paying attention to environmental issues.”

The city-owned Cobbs Creek Golf Course was a renowned public golf course that welcomed players of color decades before other courses and the PGA. But in recent years, it fell into disrepair and closed.

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Early this year, the city announced a lease agreement with a foundation to do a $65 million renovation of the golf course, with a new 9-hole course, short course, 18-hole championship course, a restaurant, and dozens of acres of wetlands. The foundation plans to restore the course to its original 1916 design and run it after renovations are done. The revamped golf course is expected to include extensive community programming and discounted rates for Philadelphia residents.

The project drew outrage when hundreds of trees were clear-cut from the property. Neighbors and users of the overgrown, shuttered golf course raised concerns about what the loss of trees could mean for flooding, biodiversity, and heat — in a city already struggling with unequal canopy coverage. 

Since then, the Art Commission, which reviews all construction projects on city property, has proved to be a challenge for the renovation project.

When the designs for the driving range and education center last appeared before the Art Commission in September, commission members berated representatives of the Cobbs Creek Foundation — the nonprofit leasing the golf course — over failing to adequately address questions they’d raised at previous meetings. The commission’s recent concerns centered around environmental issues, including tree planting and whether the project would exacerbate the urban heat island effect.

“We haven’t seen you tackle anything we haven’t seen before,” Raed Nasser, a member of the Art Commission, said during September’s meeting. “To me, it’s wasting my time.”

The plans had come before the Art Commission twice before. In April, the commission voted unanimously to deny the building’s conceptual approval. In July, the commission gave the driving range conceptual approval but asked for more native plants, solar panels, and bird-safe glass. The Commission gave conceptual approval to the Foundation’s golf course master plan in September 2021.

This week, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell introduced the Foundation’s presentation to the Art Commission.

“I’m here to provide Philadelphia Parks & Recreation’s unequivocal endorsement of the Cobbs Creek Golf Course restoration project, and the project team the Cobbs Creek Foundation has assembled to lead this important restoration for one of our country’s most storied public golf courses,” Ott Lovell said.

A Foundation contractor with Biohabitats said the project will result in the loss of about 2 acres of green space and the conversion of about 12 acres of trees to non-forested green space, but that dozens of trees will be planted around buildings and parking areas. The project team also committed to donating $250,000 to TreePhilly to plant hundreds of trees in neighborhoods — 200 of which will be considered offsets for tree loss on the golf course.

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Representatives from the Foundation also said they’ve incorporated bird-safe glass, solar panels, electric car charging stations, and native plant landscaping into the designs.

“The input that you have all given to date has really improved the project, especially from an environmental angle,” said Jeff Shanahan, president of the Cobbs Creek Foundation.

Multiple commissioners commended the Foundation for the changes. Several nearby residents and educational stakeholders also spoke in favor of the project, while other members of the public questioned its community engagement and where neighborhood trees will be planted.

Two commissioners abstained from the vote, but the remainder unanimously approved the plans.

The Foundation will now seek building permits from the city, according to a spokesperson. The driving range and education center will be built after the creek restoration and wetland creation project.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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