The historic mansion designed by Charles A. Platt on the Laverock Hill site was originally slated to be razed. Recent plans by the developer would re-purpose the structure and build 156 housing units on the estate’s 42 acres. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

by Lou Mancinelli

The cancellation by Cheltenham Township commissioners of the scheduled May 16 public hearing regarding the Laverock Hill development suggests that commissioners in both townships think the most recent plans proposed by developers for a mix of 156 single-family homes and townhouses, with 110-plus units in Springfield, is not the most appropriate fit for the site.

Commissioners in both townships are now working together to form their own concept, which they will present first to the Laverock Hill Neighbors Association (LHNA), the neighbors’ group fighting the proposal, and then developers from Blue-Bell-based Hansen Properties.

Commissioners expect to share the plan in the near future, according to Drew Sharkey, the commissioner of Ward 1 in Cheltenham where the project is proposed.

“The two townships are having working meetings to hopefully come up with a more appropriate use for the property,” said Bob Gillies, commissioner of Ward 7 in Springfield, where the development is proposed.

“We want to come up with a common plan,” said Sharkey.

According to Sharkey, commissioners in both townships want the plan to be one the community and developers will buy into.

“They have taken into account all concerns from the neighbors and the developer,” he said. “The municipalities recently hired landscape planner Ken Amery, who has worked with Cheltenham since the start of the Laverock Hill process in 2009, to provide guidance for information like the appropriate unit count of homes per acre.

Opponents of development have claimed steep grades and other issues, like density, are a poor equation for the proposed use of the land. They also argue it is out of character with the neighborhood dominated by single family homes.

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, thus the need for public meetings. Developers also introduced a proposal that for the first time since planning started that included the construction of single family homes.

According to LHNA chair Scott Laughlin, LHNA estimates 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 what is acceptable, he said.

When plans to construct 216 age-restricted units in four six-story buildings at the historic Willow Grove Avenue mansion first surfaced in 2009, neighbors formed the Save Laverock Hill Steering Committee to fight the proposal. They hired a lawyer this year to help reorganize and strengthen their resistance and rebranded themselves as LHNA. They want to preserve the historic mansion and its gardens designed by the renowned landscape architect Elizabeth Biddle Shipman.

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 calls for the construction of 44 townhouses in Cheltenham and 112 in Springfield; the other, for 35 homes in Cheltenham and 121 townhouses in Springfield.

The 42-plus-acre 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.

That the site is located within in an age-overlay district has created many issues for developers. The proposed May 16 pubic meeting was a hearing to discuss whether or not there should be a zoning ordinance granted that would allow for the building of single family and townhouses.

According to Gillies, commissioners have yet to speak with developers about their new concept.

“I’m not saying they are gonna buy into it,” said Gillies. “Our interest is to give them a plan that may be more palatable.”