Supporters and opponents of a $60 million redevelopment of the historic Cobbs Creek Golf Course in West Philadelphia faced off in City Council on Thursday.
Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., D-4th District, who introduced legislation to create a overlay zoning district that would create a special exemption to steep slope legislation for the Cobbs Creek Foundation, which is spearheading the redevelopments said he would amend the bill to mitigate the concerns of people in the neighborhoods near the property, which is in his district.
Last year, the foundation signed a 30-year lease with the city for $1 a year and raised $60 million-plus in private funds to restore the famed golf course to its glory. In the 1950s, Cobbs Creek Golf Course was home to several prominent African-American golfers in the 1950s, such as Charlie L. Sifford Jr., a Black man known as the “Jackie Robinson of golf,” Lee Elder and legendary boxer and Heavy Weight Champion Joe Louis. Elder was the first African American to win the Masters Tournament. PGA events remained segregated until 1961.
The nonprofit Cobbs Creek Foundation said it also plans to build a 30,000-square-foot educational center, which will offer financial literacy, science technology, engineering and math courses, career mentoring, along with golf lessons to about 500 neighborhood students. The foundation said it will also offer classes on golf course management.
Supporters such as Jones, say the foundation stumbled when it recently cut down too many trees down, which could result in flooding of nearby communities.
Enrique Hervada, Cobbs Creek Foundation chief operating officer, said the group has been working diligently with the state Department of Environmental Protection to create a plan to restore Cobbs Creek.
The creek has often flooded over the years due to neglect, he said. In 2016, a fire destroyed the golf course clubhouse and it closed in 2020.
Philadelphia law calls for a special survey by engineers on more than 1,400-square-feet of land which has steep slope of 15% or more and development of a storm water management plan.
Henry Davis, of the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, said he opposed the bill, accusing the foundation of a lack of transparency and community outreach. The exception could increase the run off of pesticides, he said.
Laurence Szmulowicz, said he lives near the golf course and opposes the bill to create an overlay district for it.
“The bill is bad for Philadelphia,” he said, because it creates a “dangerous precedent” of carving out exceptions to environmental protections.
Other opponents said the city should be investing its money into programs to stem gun violence.
“We are not only building a golf course, but building an education center there on the grounds. Our young people are in peril and our streets are full of carnage,” said Morgan Moore, former teacher and director of education and community engagement for the foundation. “But the best way to stop that is to provide educational opportunities, which is exactly what this golf course will do. We are going to have free educational and athletic programs for our students and I cannot think of a better way to support them.”
Under the terms of the lease with the city, the Cobbs Creek Foundation must restore the golf course and create a three-tiered rate structure (local, regional and national) that will not price local golfers out of the market.
The Cobbs Creek Foundation also plans to have a permanent exhibition to honor the heritage of Black golfers who played there.
The mission of the foundation is to provide an affordable golf experience for the community, an educational component for neighborhood children and provide a state of the art golf course suitable for national tournaments.
Jones has said he believes the golf course could serve as an economic engine for the community. But he said the surrounding neighborhoods must be protected from any possible flooding.
“What we are attempting to do is close the window of how long that exemption would exist,” Jones said. “You have to tell us what type of remediation efforts you are going to use, either putting trees back or creating slopes and runways.”