Hansen Properties' plan for 155 townhomes on the Laverock Mansion site.

by Lou Mancinelli

After almost two years of inaction, representatives from the Blue Bell-based development firm Hansen Properties said they have changed their plans for development of the historic Laverock Hill Mansion to include the construction of 155 market-rate townhomes, as opposed to 216 age-restricted units in the form of six four-story buildings.

A zoning change is required in both townships before the latest plans could be approved, and developers could apply for the change this summer.

The revised plans offered two alternatives: one calls for the construction of 44 townhomes in Cheltenham and 112 in Springfield; the other, for 35 homes in Cheltenham and 121 in Springfield. Both plans call for the historic gardens, designed by the renowned landscape architect Elizabeth Biddle Shipman, to be razed to make room for parking and for the mansion to be converted into professional office space.

The manor house would remain residential, with the cut-off line between professional and residential space being the mansion and the former portion of the greenhouse.

Hansen representatives appeared before the Springfield Township Planning Commission May 15 and the Cheltenham Township Public Works Committee June 13 and provided informal presentations of two alternate versions of earlier plans proposed for the property, the boundaries of which straddle both townships.

In between the presentations, developers changed their plans for the cottage cluster at the north end of the property, composed by the two gateway houses, garage and stables, to be residential as opposed to the professional use proposed earlier.

“The Planning Commission in Springfield Township was not enthusiastic about the sketch plan that was presented,” said Bob Gutowski, Planning Commission chair, in a telephone interview June 2.

While developers have now conducted a traffic study, Gutowski noted that Springfield commissioners had voiced concerns about density, traffic, storm water management plans, sketches that are out of character with the existing neighborhood, and the loss of historic homes required to be demolished for said development.

“What [developers] are saying is, ‘We know it’s zoned for single-family housing, but we wanna zone it differently,’” Gutowksi said.

The 42-plus acres former Sims Estate, designed by renowned architect Charles A. Platt during World War I, at 1777 Willow Grove Ave., 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. Senior housing dominated the plans the last time developers met with township commissioners.

Still at issue among the revised sketch plans are the modes of egress and ingress to the development. Earlier plans depicted three driveways that dumped motorists onto Willow Grove Avenue. Revised plans included two driveways and a widening of Willow Grove Avenue that also means the construction of left-turn lanes.

There is also the matter of the steep slopes that exist throughout the property. Developers maintain those slopes can be developed according to the numbers provided, but neighbors and commissioners disagree.

“It’s not appropriate for the density proposed by the developers,” said Mary Holland, a Springfield commissioner speaking as a citizen, about the location of the development in a telephone interview July 2. “[The plan] is really not responsive to site topography.”

“It’s a whole different ball game,” said Scott Laughlin, chair of the Laverock Hill Neighbors Association (LHNA), a group of neighbors who reside in both townships dedicated to preserving the mansion and gardens, in an interview last week. “Up until this point in time we’ve been working as a community under the assumption this was going to be senior housing. Now, they want market-rate housing.”

Laughlin said his group estimates that the property is only big enough to accommodate construction of 35 (versus 110-plus) homes in Springfield and 15 in Cheltenham. The proposed sketch plans represent a density three times that what is acceptable, he said.

“The use of the [mansion] as professional office space is not a preferred form of use,” Laughlin said .

According to Laughlin, developers moved ahead with new plans at this time because talks about selling the property to Arcadia University petered out when a viable deal failed to be reached. He said developers told him that their vision of senior housing changed because they recognized there is no market for that type of housing at present.

Representatives for the developers could not be reached.

Representatives from Cheltenham Township could not be reached for comments, but the minutes from the June 15 commissioners’ meeting illuminate similar concerns.

According to the minutes, Andrew Sharkey, Cheltenham Ward 1 Commissioner (the ward in which development could occur) asked developers if Springfield commissioners had stated if they approved rezoning. Ross Weiss, an attorney representing Hansen, said Springfield had not, and was waiting for Cheltenham’s response.

Questions from Cheltenham Township officials centered on the same issues as those of Springfield commissioners, namely, traffic, storm water management, density and the elevation of the row units.

The recent informal presentations are the latest chapter in the process of pre-development, which came to a halt almost two years ago. At that time, lawyers for the developers had removed a time extension granted by commissioners to allow for additional talks between developers and neighbors as well as for additional design and planning. Despite suggestions expressed during those talks, developers filed their initial plans, but formal presentations and votes never occurred.

Those plans called for the aforementioned six four-story buildings with a total of 216 age-restricted units (27 in each building) and a 388-space parking lot on 10 acres of the Cheltenham Township side of the estate. It was then that unhappy residents formed the LHNA to voice opposition and mobilize efforts to save the mansion and architectural character of the neighborhood.

According to Gutowski, members of the township boards consider a number of elements when making decisions about development, and he listed a few:

“Is this development as presented in keeping with the character of the neighborhood? How would it impact the lifestyle of the community in the area? How does this plan make sense? Is it a good plan in terms of quality of life for the neighborhood?”

According to Gutowksi, a high-density project of this nature coupled with the lack of close public transportation is an equation that fails to present a desired outcome. While he said developers had responded to some community concerns, he listed the absence of landscape plans as another setback.

In addition to concerns from commissioners in both townships, neighbors at the Cheltenham presentation expressed various concerns, among them traffic, the character of the community, flooding and the steep slopes at various sites across the property, according to the minutes of the meeting.