Zoning Board puts off Greylock vote

Chair says more voices should be heard

by Carla Robinson
Posted 4/4/24

A controversial plan to develop the Greylock Estate remains in limbo this week because so many people showed up to speak.

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Zoning Board puts off Greylock vote

Chair says more voices should be heard


A controversial plan to develop the Greylock Estate remains in limbo this week because so many people showed up to speak at the city’s March 27 Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing on the matter that board Chair William Bergman said he would need to continue the discussion at a future date. 

Adam Laver, an attorney for developer Lavi Shenkman, acknowledged the controversy but told the board that “it has become evident that it is impossible to satisfy every voice.”

“The Chestnut Hill Community in which Greylock is located is arguably among the most exclusive, privileged, beautiful areas in the city of Philadelphia, replete with grand, private estates, and family lineages that date back to the 1700s and the 1800s,” Laver said. “Among some, however, change of any type is not welcome, nor are differing opinions.”

Greylock, an 18,000-square-foot, 22-room mansion at the top of the hill at 209 W. Chestnut Hill Ave. was built in 1901 for steel magnate Henry Laughlin. Among the zoning variances needed would be permission to build multi-family housing. While its 6.5 acres are currently zoned for single-family use, it has not been used as a private residence since World War II. 

The Sisters of St. Mary Immaculate, which had used the property as a nursing home, sold it at auction in 1999. It was about $1.6 million in debt in 2004 when it was assessed at $3 million and repossessed by lenders. Those lenders, a group known as Greylock Holdings LLC, put the property up for sheriff's sale in 2016.

Rhombus Properties, the current development team led by Shenkman, acquired the property in late 2022. 

Shenkman’s plans call for 15 homes: six inside the historic mansion and two in the existing gatehouse, and the three new construction buildings on the west side of the property, between the building and the Wissahickon’s Lavender Trail. One of the new buildings would be a triplex and the other two would be duplexes. 

Zoning approval would be just the first hurdle for Shenkman. The property is protected by a strict conservation easement that prohibits new buildings on the property. To move forward, he will need the Chestnut Hill Conservancy to break the terms of the easement. Thus far, the Conservancy has not said whether it would take that step.

S. David Fineman, an attorney who represents a group of neighbors who oppose the project, said after the hearing that the whole proceeding was “premature.”

“Our position is that the owner of the property does not have appropriate standing,” he said. “He has no right to move forward until such time as he deals with the Conservancy.”

“What he’s doing is putting the cart before the horse,” Fineman said. “He’s as much as admitted that when he states that he would not be able to enact his plan under the easements as they are currently written.”

“Let’s assume he goes back to the Conservancy and they give him what he wants,” Fineman said. “I guarantee you that there are people within 200 feet of the proposed development who very well might file suit with a claim that the Conservancy did not have the right to remove the easements and bring the issue before Orphans’ Court. 

“It is the right of the property owner to proceed as we have, this should not even be a question,” Laver said. 

At the hearing, however, Laver said the development team “had met with the Conservancy prior to submitting the zoning package to get their feedback and conceptual approval.”

"Actually, this project has not been reviewed by and was not given conceptual approval by the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, but by a joint Conservation and Easements Committee (CEC) of the Conservancy and Friends of the Wissahickon,” said Lori Salganicoff, the Conservancy’s executive director. “This joint committee saw an initial conceptual proposal that was similar to but not the same as the development plans currently being considered by ZBA.”

The Chestnut Hill Community Association voted 10-5 in support of the proposal last month. 

A date for the continued ZBA hearing has not yet been scheduled. The meeting will be held via Zoom.