SCHOOL IS OUT. Unless you have been totally captivated by Kim Jung Un, you may have noticed some excitement in Lower Merion regarding our School Board and their decision to find a site for a new school. More specifically, questions have swirled around where a new school should be located and might that include the Hass Estate, commonly known as Stoneleigh upon which some magnificent gardens open to the public now sit. Or should the School Board build at the Islamic Center on the western end of Montgomery Ave or are there other alternatives? As these events unfolded, there has been too much misinformation (no way will I use the term “fake news”). In this report, I will try to set the record straight where required and bring you up to date. This is a long one. Grab a cup of something.
FROM WHERE DO THE LITTLE RASCALS COME?. While the school enrollment is increasing and the projected increase (with a subsequent decline years down the road) depends upon which expert report you review and there have been several. A common misnomer is that recent development is the “culprit.” However, the numbers do not support that paradigm. From 2010 to 2017 there have been 2,658 units approved. 70 of those properties are knockdowns meaning they do not add to the inventory. About 3/4 have or will be constructed, the remainder have issues. The reports indicate that for every 100 new units there are between 4-8 students, again depending upon which report you read. For example, studio apartments do not generate students and some projects are 85% studios. The enrollment projections forecast for the next 5-10 years is an increase between 8% and 16% (again depending upon the report). Forecasting at the higher range, new development would then comprise 5% to 7% of the student population. Now, add the fact that in the last 10 years our overall population has remained basically the same (58,500) and, in fact, is less than in 2008, we can safely conclude that the student body resides in the existing housing stock. The actual identity of student addresses supports that fact. As older residents move out, new families move in. The bottom line is we are a victim of our own success of having excellent schools and being a great place to live. That still leaves the need to deal with an increasing student body.
NO VACANCIES. There is very little open space in the Township to build a school. Most who have examined this issue agree the best location would be at the St. Charles Seminary which is up for sale. Main Line Health (MLH), which owns Lankeneau Hospital across the street from the Seminary, has expressed its interest in some of the 72 acre property. There seemed to be a possibility of working a deal with the School, the Seminary and MLH. Accordingly, I was able to get all three groups together with their respective legal counsel. The Seminary expressed the need to remain in and use all 72 acres for a period of 5 years before they could re-locate. That timetable did not match the School’s need and thus those discussions fizzled. I still maintain a not-so-secret desire to see that work. Most of the students live in the eastern part of the Township and there would be enough space for onsite fields. Other alternatives – and many were considered – just did not work.
SQUARE PEG IN A SLOPING ROUND HOLE. The lack of alternatives led the School Board to look at 1860 Montgomery the Clothier Estate last known as Clairemont or to others as the Islamic Center. The property is about 22 acres, but with a number of steep slopes. Located at the property is a mansion designed by the renowned Horace Trumbauer in 1910. The house has been the featured in architectural books and the property has a top flight pedigree of owners but has been greatly neglected over the past decade. In order to build a school on the property planners and architects for the School determined they could not salvage or use any portion of the building it would need be demolished. Plans for the site, which are posted on the School Web page, show the carefully positioned 75,000 square foot print for a school on the flat area of the property and 30,000 sq. ft print for a separate gym, some fields (limited by the typography) and some tennis courts. Acquisition and construction has been estimated at $100 million. Building there will not be easy and will require other land relief for impervious space, height restrictions, parking, and setbacks to name a few.
HISTORY OF HISTORICAL PRESERVATION. About 10 years ago the La Rhonda Estate in Bryn Mawr was demolished and the Township cringed in that this historic jewel was removed without the ability to preserve a brick. This led to a change in our ordinance which allowed for historic preservation. Properties were classified pursuant to certain criteria set by our code and national recognition . More recently, in 2015, our Historic Commission was engaged to identify and recommend designation of protected and unprotected resources. A list of 30 potential properties was identified and a review by a consultant funded by the PA Historical & Museum Commission recommended 13 properties for designation. Two were removed from the list, namely, WCAU and the Bala Theater. The others, but for Clairemont proceeded. That property was temporarily removed from the list due to the expressed interest by the School and the need for more information. The rumor that the issue of Historic Resource certification came about because of the School’s interest in the property is not accurate. The Clairemont property was already considered a Class II resource and the recommendation to upgrade it to Class I was part of this several year process. So what is the significance between Class I and Class II? Very little. As a Class I resource, before it can be demolished, the owner need present to the Board of Commissioner reasons for which the property does not have an adaptive re-use. The School Board was reluctant to acquire the property and be subject to the Board of Commissioners’ decision on demolition. Candidly, there was an issue of trust albeit we are not the North Koreans. Thus, enter Stoneleigh.
THIS HAAS TO STAY. In 1996 the Haas family (as in Rohm and Haas) donated about 65 acres to the Natural Lands Trust to be preserved as a natural garden open to the public. The Lower Merion Conservancy monitors the property. If you have not been there, put this on the to-do list. The School district looking for land indicated that it would exercise its rights of eminent domain for either enough of the property to build a school and fields or a 7 acre section which they believed to available under the grant (a debatable point) just for fields. The uproar from the community was remarkable. 28,000 people signed a petition to save Stoneleigh (as it is now referred). Just about every State elected official who looks for votes in Lower Merion either directly or through their office contacted myself and other Commissioners asking that we not certify Clairemont as a Class I out of concern this would cause the School to move to condemn Stoneleigh. While the School indeed can condemn the property through its right of eminent domain and one cannot fault them for looking at all options, there was no doubt a legal fight would develop. If ultimately the Courts had a question about the right outcome, it was clear the public did not and the public always holds the last say at the ballot box. On more than one occasion I expressed the view that Stoneleigh would never be taken.
THIS IS LM – WORK IT OUT!!! For a number of years the level of cooperation and communication between the School Board and Board of Commissioners was less than ideal (putting it mildly). Although the 2 Boards have separate responsibilities, we serve the same community and while we may not always agree (as in where do you place the busses) there is no reason we cannot work together. Long before this issue surfaced (almost 2 years ago) we reinstituted an Intergovernmental Committee comprised of members of both Boards and Narberth Council. We meet quarterly and have off-line discussion followed by a public discourse. In addition, as president of the Board, I have had several meetings with Dr. Melissa Gilbert, the president of the School Board. Lately we have been in constant contact through phone, email and text with such regularity that her name comes up “bff” but I do not know what that means. As a result, we have been able to exchange information and work together. The end result, the School Board recognizes (and I believe they always appreciated this fact) that the community does not support use of Stoneleigh and that need immediately be removed from consideration. It will also be necessary to find adequate playing fields and the Township staff is diligently working on those alternatives. We will also need to deal with the multitude of land use issues (more complicated than Historic Resource certifications) and the details of those are being explored. As a result the Board of Commissioners did not proceed to certify Clairemont as Class I, the School has agreed to work with historic preservation experts to see what aspects can be maintained in some fashion, the School has not proceeded against Stoneleigh (and I await that public announcement) and we are reviewing the land development issues. In short, we are going to jointly develop a plan fitting of Lower Merion which will adequately serve our community well into the future.
FINAL NOTE. While I write this report from my perspective I wish not to overlook or fail to mention the hard work and countless hours of other members of the Board of Commissioners. While there were differing views about build a school or add on to existing schools, where to build a school, should Clairemont be certified Class I and whether no action be taken until Stoneleigh is off the table, each member of the Board was a major contributor with well thought out and researched ideas of how to deal with an issue which, for a large part, is outside our jurisdiction. This truly is a great group to work with and I suspect they will not mind our August break.
Hope you have a nice summer.
Daniel S. Bernheim
Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1
President Board of Commissioners