by Lou Mancinelli
If developers from Blue Bell-based Hansen Properties want to move forward with their proposal to develop a mix of single-family homes and townhouses on the historic Laverock Hill Mansion site on Willow Grove Avenue, the proposed 156-unit count must come down, according to Drew Sharkey, Cheltenham Township Ward 1 Commissioner.
In mid-July, township managers from both Cheltenham and Springfield townships shared an informal conceptual plan created by a collaboration between the townships and developers, and a separate meeting with the attorney for Save Laverock Hill, the neighbors’ group dedicated to preserving the historic mansion and gardens, that suggested between 90 and 100 units in the form of three-unit carriage homes. The plans would also preserve the mansion and gardens.
“I think what I would focus on is both municipalities are working together to make something that’s best for the 40-acres and surrounding community,” said Sharkey.
In the process of doing that, according to Sharkey, commissioners are forgetting about township lines in order to concentrate on what is best for the land.
According to Bob Gillies, Springfield Township Ward 1 Commissioner, in whose area the development would take place, Springfield commissioners support Cheltenham, and are waiting for an official statement from Cheltenham before stating their own formal position.
Commissioners in both townships agree that the current proposed density of 156-units is too high. The developers’ original 2009 proposal for 216 age-restricted units in the form of six four-story buildings is still very much on the table, according to Sharkey.
That proposal presents a controversy. Developers and commissioners have a different legal opinion as to whether or not developers can move ahead with that plan as-of-right, according to Sharkey. Legality aside, before developers could move ahead with that plan, they would first need to appear before the Cheltenham zoning board for a request for a land-use ordinance. A zoning change is required in both townships before developers can move ahead with any plan.
“The township has serious concerns with that [original] plan,” Sharkey said.
Developers first offered a first set of alternative plans to the age-restricted units in 2009 because of concerns about the strength of the potential buyer’s market.
Most recently, Cheltenham township commissioners canceled a public meeting that was scheduled for May 16. That meeting was called when last fall developers sought to have the decision about the proposed zoning ordinance changed to a community decision instead of a vote by township officials. The change precipitated the need for public meetings. At that time, developers also introduced a proposal that for the first time since planning started included the construction of single-family homes.
When Cheltenham commissioners shelved the meeting before it occurred, the move indicated early signs that developers 156-unit plans lacked support.
The 42-plus-acre former Sims Estate at 1777 Willow Grove Ave., designed by renowned architect Charles A. Platt during World War I, was included on the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s 2010 Endangered Properties list.
The portion situated in Springfield Township is zoned AA, which allows for construction of detached single-family homes. In Cheltenham, the site exists in an age-overlay district that allows for development of 55-plus housing. Since 2009, alternative and quite different plans have been proposed, including the already mentioned mix of 156-units announced this fall. In a July 2012 proposal, developers offered plans that called only for the construction of townhouses. One plan called for the construction of 44 townhouses in Cheltenham and 112 in Springfield; the other, for 35 homes in Cheltenham and 121 townhouses in Springfield.
According to Scott Laughlin, chair of Save Laverock Hill, estimates produced by the group found the property is only big enough to support 35 homes in Springfield and 15 in Cheltenham.
Throughout the dialogue between developers, commissioners and neighbors, various issues like steep slope, density and parking have been raised. According to Sharkey, those issues are different ways to reduce the allowed number of units. He said they are ancillary to the current discussion until there is a more concrete plan to comment on.
Neither township agreed that because they are having this sort of discussion it means a mix of single-family homes and townhouses is likely to be developed here.
“They are some time away before they can put a shovel in the ground,” Sharkey said.