Paradise saved: At long last, deal to develop Haverford State site appears set
Monday, December 11th 2006
Delaware County Times
When Haverford commissioners meet tonight, they are expected to mark a major milestone in township history. They are expected to approve a facility planner who will give them guidance on how to implement the recreational portion of the long-embattled Haverford State Hospital property.
While township residents probably won't be able to use those facilities before 2009, the hiring of a planner, paid for with a $30,000 grant procured by state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166, is a major step toward making them a reality.
No one appreciates that more than Haverford Township Recreation Director Tim Denny.
"Now for the first time, we're talking in terms of reality," said the 52-year-old township resident, who has been recreation director since 1981.
Since 1998, when Pennsylvania public welfare officials closed the 36-year-old state hospital for the mentally ill as part of their effort to implement community-based care, the institution's 25 buildings and the 209 acres they occupy have been vacant.
On Dec. 17, 2002, with the help of legislation drafted by Vitali and state Sen. Connie Williams, D-17, the deed for the property was conveyed from the state to the township for $3.5 million. It included a restriction that 120 acres must be preserved for passive open space and 15 acres for active recreation.
On Dec. 30, 2003, commissioners approved an agreement to sell 61 acres for $30.65 million to Haverford Hills Associates L.P., a joint venture of the Goldenberg Group of Blue Bell and Pohlig Builders of Malvern. Fourteen acres were left for public recreation and 120 acres for open space.
Its evolution has since included an aborted development plan after a public outcry for more recreational and open space, a lawsuit, a possible investigation by the state Attorney General's office, political upheaval on the board of commissioners, a new attorney to oversee re-negotiations and, finally, a new plan.
On Nov. 14, the board of commissioners approved a new agreement of sale to Haverford Hills Associates for the former state hospital property, now known as Haverford Reserve. The commissioners also gave preliminary land approval of the development plan.
"Tonight is an historic night for the residents ..We have reached a major milestone in moving our community forward in a way that reflects the desires expressed by the people at public meetings and surveys over the past eight years," board President Stephen D'Emilio declared after commissioners voted 7-1 to give conditional use approval.
The only dissenting vote was cast by Commissioner Fred Moran, who was a proponent of the first plan. Commissioner Carol McDonald was not present for the vote.
In Haverford Reserve, the township will have 123.72 acres of passive open space that will include walking and bike trails. Another 45.51 acres has been allocated for active recreation including four ball fields, an amphitheater, a dog park, picnic pavilions and a 40,000- to 60,000-foot indoor recreation center.
Jan Marie Rushforth, who chairs the nine-member Ad Hoc Citizens Haverford State Advisory Board that was appointed by commissioners in January, has publicly advocated preserving green space on the hospital property since 1998.
"For generations, residents will now be able to enjoy 169 acres of green space and play areas to walk and bike and picnic and play sports and learn about the first order stream," said Rushforth, who, with her husband, Alan, is a commercial real estate investor.
The new plan, she happily notes, limits the development parcel to 19 percent of the 209 acres.
Even the developers are happy about the agreement, despite the fact that acreage in their original plan was reduced by almost half.
Todd Pohlig, who co-owns Pohlig Builders with his brother Don, noted, "I think for the most part people are very pleased. We're pleased, the township is pleased and, I think, the residents are happy with the results as well."
The developers have agreed to pay $17 million for 39.96 acres on which they plan to build 198 mid-rise condominium units for adults age 55 and over and 100 semi-detached carriage houses expected to attract singles and "empty-nesters." Each development will have its own clubhouse with pool, tennis courts and community rooms and its own homeowners association responsible for the maintenance of landscaping, streets, and facilities.
There will be a 50-foot landscape buffer maintained by the developers between the developments and the neighboring Quadrangle retirement community.
The developers also will reconfigure a driveway and utilities for the E. Fuller Torrey House, a community residence for mental health clients run by CareLink. It is on the township portion of Haverford Reserve, but the property is still owned by the state.
Pohlig declined to give an estimate of the cost of the condominium units and carriage homes, described in the agreement of sale as "first-class developments."
"Now that the development approvals are being finalized we will start to look at the building designs and then rework the pricing as well," said Pohlig.
He did liken the carriage homes to those constructed by Pohlig Builders from 2002 to 2004 in the Applewood community in East Goshen, Chester County. They reportedly sold for between $700,000 and $800,000 and, by last May, had a re-sale value of $1 million.
The developers, who will be responsible for demolition of the hospital buildings, environmental remediation of such substances as asbestos and constructing two major access roads, are providing the township with $500,000 to go toward trails and a nature center, which Denny said may be incorporated into the recreation center.
The difference between the 2003 plan and the newly approved plan is "the difference between night and day," said Denny.
"The 2003 plan was just lines on a piece of paper. There was nothing useable about them," maintained the recreation director.
There was no parking and the fields, which were not "a legitimate size," were on steep slopes with one field plan including a troublesome 67-foot drop, said Denny. Now there are provisions for 175 parking spaces near the American Legion regulation-sized fields, with the possibility of overflow parking.
Public outrage, which led in part to the ousting of three commissioners in the 2005 election, brought an end to the earlier plan, but not before the developers filed a lawsuit over their stalled investment, which included a $5 million down payment.
The lawsuit, filed in July 2005, was withdrawn two months later when re-negotiations commenced. Todd Pohlig said the lawsuit was basically a way to get the deal back on track.
"We had paid our $5 million deposit and nothing was happening. There was a lot of debate," he noted.
Republican commissioner Joseph Kelly lost to Mario Oliva in the May 2005 primary and Republican commissioners George Twardy and Kenneth Richardson were unseated by Democrats Lawrence Holmes and Thomas Broido in the November 2005 election because, Denny maintains, voters were angered by the first state hospital property deal.
"Under the new leadership, the plan much better reflects what the community wants and values. It has limited development and allows for preservation of open space and enough useable space for community recreation," said Denny
By December 2005, D'Emilio and Andy Lewis, vice president of the board of commissioners, had shaken hands on a new deal with Haverford Hills Associates.
Just about the same time, the contract for Jeffrey Rotwitt, an attorney with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel hired by the township in 2003 to market the state hospital site and negotiate the first deal, expired. A $600,000 payment made by the township to Rotwitt's firm, which he later returned with interest, became the target of an investigation by the Delaware County District Attorney's office in November 2004. That matter was reportedly turned over by the D.A. to the state Attorney General's office.
Attorney General spokesman Nils Frederiksen, who last June acknowledged that the matter was turned over to the state, refused to make the same acknowledgement on Friday. He also said he could neither confirm nor deny that the Attorney General was conducting a grand jury investigation involving Haverford Township. Township officials confirmed that on June 7 two special agents from the attorney general's office seized 30 boxes of Haverford Township records and subpoenaed the township manager and finance director to testify before a state grand jury on June 12.
Last January, Daniel Brooman, a land use attorney with Drinker Biddle & Reath of Berwyn, Chester County, was hired to shepherd the new deal with all the interested parties.
"David Brooman was a very fair taskmaster to get to the bottom line here. There were a lot of competing interests and David did a good job of getting everyone to keep their eye on the ball," said Pohlig.
For Brooman, it was personal. The 50-year-old resident of the Ardmore section of Haverford Township and his wife, Denni, have lived in Merion Golf Manor, about a half mile from the state hospital property, for 25 years, and have been very active in the community. They have also raised four sons there.
Brooman's firm submitted a proposal at a markedly reduced rate, he said, "because it's public and I'm a resident. There are four of us here who are Haverford Township residents and who are significantly concerned about what happens to our township."
He credits the successful negotiations to team work, especially noting the involvement of Denny, D'Emilio, Lewis, township engineer David Pennoni, township code enforcement officer Lorraine Hanlon-Widdop and solicitor A. Leo Sereni.
"My job certainly was to bring all the interests together and put flesh on the bones, get it engineered and make sure it was feasible," said Brooman.
Pohlig said the efforts of the township commissioners and township staff in gathering data and arranging meetings expedited the process.
Robert Freedman, senior vice president and general counsel for the Goldenberg Group, noted, "It took a while to get on track, but this was a complicated process and such an important property to the township, it made sense to take our time and do it right."
Pohlig maintains that the township's decision to prioritize conservation is more consistent with the developers' original concept for the property. He noted that the $500,000 Haverford Hills is paying the township to be used for trails and the nature center was "a good-faith effort and to try and reconcile differences."
"There are a lot of communities around here that are raising taxes to buy open space so I understood their dilemma over how much of this they should sell. It's a very interesting decision for them to make," said Pohlig.
The trails are an asset to both the township and the developer because they will make the area more appealing to potential buyers of the condominium units and carriage homes, noted Brooman.
"The amount of green space that will remain in Haverford township, you can't put a price on that. It will be just a wonderful amenity for the people of Haverford township and for the people in the development. They can take a beautiful walk every morning, literally, in the woods," said Brooman.
The new agreement ensures that no more housing can be built on Haverford Reserve, which is consistent with the wishes of township residents, noted Brooman.
"They want it to remain open space in perpetuity and that's what it will forever remain, for active and passive recreation. This is a deed restriction," said Brooman.
Haverford Reserve is especially important because open space on the Main Line is at a premium, noted Brooman.
"This will be just a tremendous asset to the people living in Haverford Township, at all age levels, too, from children to people in their 20s and 30s who want to hike, to the elderly who just want to walk. There is a tremendous amount of terrain differential. You can get a workout," said Brooman.
There will be macadam walking paths around the ball fields as well as three nature and hiking trails in the passive recreation area. One trail runs along the sewer line in the Southbrook area, near Marple Road.
"It has beautiful vistas. The Southbrook trail goes way down into a ravine, crosses the active (recreation) area, and drops off again," said Denny.
Boy Scout Troop 144, to which one of Denny's five children belongs, has already blazed a trail in the Meadow or Northbrook section of the property closer to Haverford Darby Road. It is a flat area that was first rented to the scouts from the state for $1 a year in the 1960s. Denny hopes it will continue to be used by the community for camping.
Another trail, in the wetlands on the other side of Route 476 along Darby Creek, will expose hikers to many species of birds, plants and marine life, said Denny.
"It's stunning to think, 'Wow, we're in the middle of Haverford Township.' It feels more like the Poconos and we're five minutes from the Blue Route, Darby Road and Eagle Road. It's, like, the best of both worlds," said Denny.
With the help of the facility planner, Denny hopes to educate the commissioners about what will work best in the indoor recreation facility that he refers to as a "recreational/environmental center." That includes deciding what type of pool to build and what fee, if any, to charge residents who use the facility which will include a basketball court, and community meeting and exercise rooms.
Currently, most Haverford recreational programs including football, basketball, soccer, music and dance programs are self-sufficient. A small fee is charged for summer programs that are also subsidized by tax dollars and revenue generated from other programs.
"It's a values decision about how much we want to be self-sufficient and how much we want to be tax-supported," said Denny.
He is anxious to see how much funding from the property salewill be approved by the commissioners for the recreational facilities.
"I would like to get funding approved right away for the outdoor components," said Denny.
Haverford Reserve will have four ball fields, three of which will be multi-use for football, soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey. Two of them will be combination fields that will include baseball diamonds. The fourth field will be for softball.
One of the fields is expected to have synthetic turf and involves a specific type of storm water management that Denny would like to coordinate with the developers who are handling the infrastructure.
He hopes to start building the fields by fall 2008 and using them by spring or fall of 2009. He hopes the indoor recreation facilities will be available by fall 2010.
For closure on the deal to occur, various permits must be procured including ones from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Township commissioners also must give final land approval.
"My job will probably be completed when all the permits and approvals are obtained, money changes hands and we close on the 39.96 acres. It will have to occur before Nov. 14, 2007," said Brooman.
If permits are obtained as early as March, the deal could be completed by July.
"There's a lot of hard work behind-the-scenes to accelerate the schedule. The sooner demolition is done, the sooner the fields can be up. I know a lot of people are anxious to get to the fields," said Pohlig.
Demolition of the hospital buildings, environmental remediation and grading of the fields could be started as early as the end of February, noted Pohlig.
Haverford Hills Associates also must build a pump station, install utilities and make off-site improvements such as traffic lights at intersections leading into Haverford Reserve.
"I suspect that we will see all of the buildings demolished, all the environmental remediation completed, all the major site work such as grading and the initial infrastructure, completed by September of '08," said Brooman.
As early as 2009, construction of the condominiums and carriage homes could commence, noted Pohlig. Brooman predicted all housing to be completed by 2014. Pohlig hopes it will be sooner.
After environmental remediation, construction of the spine road will begin. Originating at Darby Road, it will be the grand entrance to Haverford Reserve with the condominium units on the right and the carriage homes on the left. The spine road will be a wide boulevard complimented by dense, mature plantings to "give the appearance of an established community," noted Brooman.
The spine road will terminate at a cul de sac then narrow into the park road, which the developers will also build.
"The character of the road will change at the park. It narrows, has speed bumps. They want it very much to look and act like a park as opposed to a thoroughfare," said Brooman.
For Denny, who started working for the township cleaning up its ball fields as a federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act employee in 1980, the reincarnated Haverford Reserve plan is the light at the end of a very long tunnel.
"I feel like the fog is starting to lift," said the Haverford Township recreation director. "We can see where we're headed."
This article was written by Patti Mengers and published by Delaware County Times on Monday, December 11th 2006 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with opacity.us, but are recorded here solely for educational use. The photographs featured in the article are randomly selected from the Haverford State Hospital galleries on opacity.us unless noted otherwise; they may not directly relate to the article subject matter except for the site location - any other relation is purely coincidental.