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Mansion faces demolition despite neighbors’ campaign

Laverock Hill Mansion in Cheltenham will be demolished if a high-rise project is approved by Cheltenham Township.

After close to a year of discussions between concerned neighbors, develop- ers and township officials, which included meetings where alternate plans were presented, neighbors’ efforts may at last have fallen short of saving Laverock Hill Mansion from the wrecking ball.

That is, if tentative sketch plans are approved by Cheltenham Township commissioners later this summer.

A time extension initiated by representatives from Bluebell-based development firm Hansen-Lloyd has been removed, revisions have been shelved and developers submitted their initial tentative sketch plans for the Sims Estate, which include the destruction of the Laverock Hill Mansion called by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Preservation “the best example of an early twentieth century estate in the area of the 309 Road Improvement Project” when wealthy Philadelphians built elaborate summer homes and year-round estates in the country.

It will also mean the construction of a number of high-rise buildings. A formal letter expressing the developer’s plans to move forward was sent to Cheltenham Township officials on June 14 by the developer’s attorney.

“We thought we were making progress,” said Scott Laughlin a Laverock Hill Neighbors Association (LHNA) founder in a telephone interview early Saturday evening. Laughlin said he was informed of the removal by a Cheltenham Township zoning official.

“There were plans to save the mansion,” he said. “While the [revised] plan was still too dense, it was better than the original. I was quite surprised when this information came out of the blue without forewarning. The attorney did what was required and informed the township they [the developers] were moving forward … We have not met with them since March. It’s in the public forum now.” 

“Our preference is to retain the mansion, but it has to work for everyone,” said Dave Sherman, a representative from Hansen-Lloyd in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “[It] hasn’t worked out how we hoped or how we thought it would. That’s why we have been attempting to work with the township for the past two years.

“We have had numerous meetings and numerous other plans but we haven’t got the feedback we want from the township. They haven’t come out and said ‘we like this one.’ What they’ve essentially said is ‘let’s see what the public says.’ That is what we are going to do.”

Township officials have 60 days to review the tentative plans and to vote to approve or reject the project, according to Cheltenham Township manager David Kraynik. That 60 days has, in a sense, been extended because developers postponed the scheduled July review, which will now occur during August and September, Kraynik said in a telephone interview Monday morning.

If those plans are approved, the next step in the process is for the developers to submit final development plans to township commissioners, which would require additional public meetings.

In the winter of 2009, Hansen-Lloyd (the same firm who developed Normandy Farms at Blue Bell Country Club) representatives submitted the same initial plans to build 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 42-acre estate, which straddles both Cheltenham and Springfield townships. 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.

Key opposition points to the plan raised by LNHA members center on what they say is the development’s high density, large scale, disregard for environmental issues like storm water-runoff, and the fact that 100 percent of the traffic that exits from the new development will exit on to Willow Grove Avenue, an already busy thoroughfare, Laughlin said.

“We are not opposed to respectable development of 55-plus housing,” said Laughlin. “But we want development that respects the character and architectural integrity of the neighborhood, and doesn’t dump people on to Willow Grove Avenue, which the plan does not address.”

Neighbors hoped discussions, which occurred in the past year between a small steering commitee that represented neighbors’ concerns, developers and township officials, would produce plans that included suggestions from neighbors. As of this week, that is not the case.

According to Douglas J. Heller, one of Springfield’s seven commissioners, issues remain as to whether Cheltenham’s current zoning overlays for preservation or age-restricted areas preserve the estate’s historic mansion and gardens.

“At this point, there are issues that have to be resolved on the Cheltenham side before Springfield Township commissioners can decide what is best for the community,” Heller said in a telephone interview Monday morning. “It is my opinion that preserving the historic mansion and gardens are important.”

According to a position statement presented at a community meeting in March 2009, members of LHNA, which according to Laughlin is not a formal group with legal authority, envisioned development plans that saved and maintained the mansion. The mansion, which is not an official registered National Historic Site, was designed by renowned architect Charles A. Platt during World War I, and its gardens were designed by the renowned Elizabeth Biddle Shipman.

LHNA members claim no consideration was given to the properties in Springfield Township that are non-buildable due to sleep slopes, as well as the creation of an unsafe driveway of more than a 40-degree angle at the Harkins property, located on Willow Grove Avenue.

Members say steep slopes may not have been considered in Cheltenham either. And according to Laughlin, the developers have not conducted an environmental impact or a traffic study, both of which are required for new development projects.

“You can adjust placements of buildings so you are not building on steep slopes,” said Laughlin.

Sherman said, however, that the developer has done its homework.

“I believe we have done preliminary studies for the plans that are on the table,” he said. “We will do all that is required to get approval.”

Cheltenham’s Kraynik was not sure how the township would vote. He said the developer would have to go through the zoning process.

“It is still kind of too early to determine [what will happen],” he said. “It depends on the final plan. If the final plan requires variances the developer will have to try to get them. Whatever is required will be done … At any level of the plan, at any level of a project … we seek public input. We like it.”

A separate group, according to Laughlin, hoped revised plans would incorporate a safer redesigned Cresheim Trail that connects Fairmount Park to Mt. Airy, through Laverock through Springfield to the Morris Arboretum trails and would not require pedestrians and bikers to cross Willow Grove Avenue.

But of all these hopes seem as if they may have been in vain now that the developer has moved ahead with its original plans.

“I hope they [Cheltenham zoning officials] vote it down.” said Laughlin. “There is a significant gap between what the community can handle and what the developer wants to build.”



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