by Lou Mancinelli

Developers seeking to transform the Laverock Hill Estate on Willow Grove Avenue at the Cheltenham-Springfield border, into housing have presented a new set of alternate plans, renewed their efforts and are now poised to request a public hearing in which they seek to change the zoning ordinance to allow for denser development in both Springfield and Cheltenham townships.

Developers from Blue Bell-based Hansen Properties met with the Springfield Township Board of Supervisors Jan. 8 in a workshop session. They are seeking to rezone the entire parcel to cluster-style housing of either dense single-family or townhouses at market-rate, without age restrictions.

The commissioners failed to take any action, but were inclined to grant the public meeting, according to attendee Scott Laughlin, president of the Laverock Hill Steering Committee, a group of neighbors from both townships dedicated to preserving the historic mansion and gardens.

Hansen is scheduled to present to the Cheltenham Planning Commission on Jan. 28 and potentially at the Cheltenham Building and Zoning Committee Feb. 6, where they are expected to request a public hearing for a zoning change.

“I think they are now starting to a get little more aggressive than they have been in the past,” said Laughlin about the developers’ recent shift in strategy to move a zoning decision out of the hands of commissioners and into the hands of the community. “My guess is the community is going to get a little more organized than we’ve been in the past, which might mean hiring professionals.”

“At some point there will need to be a public hearing on the new zoning,” said Robert Gillies, Springfield Township Commissioner for Ward 1, in which the project is slated to be developed. Gillies said the township has yet to take an official position.

“We want to make sure we understand where we are headed,” he said, noting that commissioners would review the latest plans and decide what is best for the community. Gillies also said a zoning change that allowed for single family homes could lead to a situation that enables developers to raze the entire facility and develop 300-plus units.

The developer’s initial proposal to construct 216 age-restricted units in the form of six four-story buildings, announced in 2009, has yet to be tabled. According to Gillies, it is still the official project that has been presented. All other plans still exist as alternatives.

The latest alternate plans both present a 156-unit project, the same as the previous announced in July 2012. Plan A calls for 69 townhomes and 45 single family homes to be constructed in Springfield, and 44 townhomes in Cheltenham. Plan B calls for 98 single family homes to be erected in Springfield, and 44 townhomes in Cheltenham.

The introduction of single family homes is a new page in the years-long chapter. Developers mentioned that they planned to offer another alternative in the fall, according to Laughlin.

“It’s even less open space,” said Laughlin, about the most recent plans. “None of them [the plans] are attractive yet.”

Laughlin said developers have attempted to offer the community open space in exchange for high density, a compromise that seems to have been overlooked. He also fears a precedent could be set that limits community input in future development.

When one rezones an area, it limits the need for variances, according to Laughlin, also a realtor. Therefore, community input and that of commissioners is reduced. More, if the zoning law is changed, a project is not reviewable. This could allow for large projects to be developed in the future by right.

Last summer, developers presented plans for the construction of 44 townhomes in Cheltenham and 112 in Springfield; and another for 35 homes in Cheltenham and 121 in Springfield. Both plans called 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 latest plans also included this element.

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.

For the past few years, developers have attempted to sway commissioners’ opinions about the projects. They have met repeated organized resistance from the Laverock Hill Steering Committee.

“I don’t know right now,” said Gillies, about the development’s destiny. “Right now, we have to look at the whole plan.”