Hotel-condo plan for Elkins Estate advances in Cheltenham

Posted: August 07, 2014

Over the objections of residents and Montgomery County planners, the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners approved new zoning Tuesday for the historic Elkins Estate to be redeveloped as a boutique hotel, condominiums, and arts center.

The 4-3 vote came as a surprise to those attending a public meeting on the proposal. Everyone who spoke at the meeting asked the board to revise the zoning ordinance or delay the vote.

The proposed development for the property - a 42-acre landscaped estate with two mansions built by Horace Trumbauer around 1900 - has the support of many residents in the township. In addition to adding badly needed commercial taxes, it would preserve two historic buildings and allow public access to arts and cultural events held at the new center.

But some said the zoning ordinance was too vague and favored the developer.

Brad Pransky, a community activist with expertise in zoning and development, told the commissioners that he liked the proposed reuse, but that "we have rushed this through at a tremendous rate. I think we need to take a beat and look at some of the issues."

In a July letter to the township, the county Planning Commission said the ordinance needed clearer language, and might be challenged as spot zoning because it applies to a single property.

Several residents were concerned with the density of the project - as many as 250 hotel rooms, 250 condos, or a combination totaling fewer than 500 - and how it would increase traffic on the surrounding two-lane roads.

"We already have people lining up for about half an hour at rush hour," said Joseph Gilbert, who lives on Ashbourne Road.

Scott Laughlin, speaking for the township Planning Commission, recommended that the commissioners approve the zoning change, but only with provisions to give the township more control over details such as open space, building, and view of the property from the street.

Commissioner Harvey Portner said those issues would be worked out later, when the developer submits more detailed master plans.

Commissioners Art Haywood, Daniel Norris, and Ann Rappaport voted against the ordinance. Portner, Charles McKeown, Morton Simon, and Andrew Sharkey voted in favor.

Muayad Abbas, a founding partner of Apeiron, they are leaning toward roughly one-third hotel and two-thirds condo.  Under the ordinances' calculations, that would be 100 hotel units and 200 condos.

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