Philly Art Commission continues to challenge Cobbs Creek Golf Course renovation

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)

Plans to renovate the Cobbs Creek Golf Course in West Philadelphia are still stuck before the city’s Art Commission. The group refused to vote on part of the plan Wednesday, asking the development team to return later with more information.

It’s the third time redevelopers have presented plans for a driving range and education center to the commission, and faced questioning or pushback.

“This is not hitting the mark yet,” said José Almiñana, a landscape architect who sits on the Art Commission. “I don’t know what to do about this.”

The Cobbs Creek Golf Course, located on city-owned land near Philly’s Overbrook neighborhood, has an illustrious past as a public course that welcomed players of color decades before the PGA and other golf courses.

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Cobbs Creek languished in recent years, closing in 2020 over safety concerns — after erosion and flooding damaged its greens and fairways, and a 2016 fire destroyed the course’s historic clubhouse.

But a deal announced early this year between the city and the Cobbs Creek Foundation will see the property transformed, with several new buildings, a course restored to its 1916 design, and a wetland creation project. The foundation is leasing the property from the city for $1, and has promised to invest at least $65 million to restore the course. The foundation has also promised extensive community programming and discounted rates for Philadelphia residents.

However, the project sparked outrage early this spring when hundreds of trees were cleared from the site. Neighbors, advocates and naturalists say they felt betrayed to lose acres of trees and other vegetation on public land, in a ZIP code where more than 80% of residents are Black. Some also raised concerns on the potential impact of the canopy loss on flooding, biodiversity, and heat mitigation.

Officials with the Cobbs Creek Foundation have countered that some tree clearing was necessary to prepare the site for the creek restoration and wetland creation project, which aims to fix erosion and chronic flooding issues that plagued the course. The foundation has also promised to plant 1,500 new trees, shrubs, and other plants.  

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The foundation appeared before the Art Commission Wednesday to seek final approval for the planned education center and driving range — which would be built after the creek restoration and wetland creation project, according to a foundation spokesperson. But commissioners expressed frustration with what they saw as a presentation that inadequately addressed their concerns from prior meetings.

“I’m really troubled by some of the lack of integration of the feedback we’ve offered,” said commissioner and city planning scholar Matthew Jordan-Miller Kenyatta.

The commissioners’ concerns primarily center around environmental aspects of the project — like plans for replacing trees and the impact of the development on the urban heat island effect in surrounding neighborhoods. No landscape architect from the development team was available to address commissioners’ questions, and Art Commission staffer Beige Berryman said the body had not received an environmental assessment report addressing heat island mitigation that Jeff Shanahan, President at Cobbs Creek Foundation, said he thought was submitted.

“We haven’t seen you tackle anything we haven’t seen before,” said Raed Nasser, a member of the Art Commission. “To me, it’s wasting my time. … If you’re having trouble taking care of these items right now, how will it be later on in your project? I mean, to me it’s a little bit troubling.”

The foundation presented plans for the buildings to the Art Commission twice before — once in April, when the commission voted unanimously to deny the buildings conceptual approval, and again in July, when the commission granted conceptual approval for the driving range but requested more environmental considerations, including native plants, solar panels, and bird-safe glass. The foundation gained the commission’s conceptual approval for its golf course master plan in September 2021.

Other elements planned for the golf course renovation include a new 9-hole course, a short course, and a 18-hole championship course capable of hosting PGA Tour events.

Commissioners voted Wednesday to delay considering the driving range and education center plans for final approval to a later date.

Allison Steele, a contracted spokesperson for the foundation with Ceisler Media, said in response to emailed questions that going forward, “it’s just a matter of providing all the necessary materials.”

“The Cobbs Creek Foundation has worked diligently to address all outstanding questions from the Commission, and we will continue to do so throughout this process by providing them with all requested materials,” said Shanahan, of the Cobbs Creek Foundation, in a statement provided by Steele after the meeting. “The CCF has secured conditional approvals on numerous elements of the project and fully expects to return to the Commission for future review and approval.”

The foundation recently received approval from the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection for the creek restoration project, Steele said. The next and final step for that part of the renovation will be approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Once the foundation receives approvals from the Art Commission, it will need to secure building permits, Steele said.

The foundation had sought approval to clear trees from protected steep slopes on the property, but withdrew that appeal this spring, after city residents criticized the initial tree clearing. Shanahan told PlanPhilly in May the foundation still plans to pursue tree cutting on the steep slopes, after additional community engagement.

“The Cobbs Creek Foundation is committed to working with all city agencies and commissions on this project, which when completed will serve as an inclusive community hub, an educational center, a world-class golf course and a preserved green space,” Shanahan said.

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