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Source: Chestnut Hill Local
Date: July 24, 2003
Byline: James Sturdivant

Fate of Black Horse Inn shifts again

The latest chapter in the Black Horse Inn saga might well be titled "New Player, Same Rules."

A new owner has likely come into the picture -- Moreland Development of Rosemont, Pa., which has entered into an agreement of sale with current owner the Hampton Real Estate Group -- but plans still call for a move of the historic structure from its current site on Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown in order to make way for a pharmacy and state liquor store.

What's changed are some of the details. In a presentation last week before the Springfield Township planning board, Robert Blue, a civil engineer and land planner working with Moreland, revealed that the inn would probably be moved across Bethlehem Pike to an as-yet-unnamed location, rather than to the back of the 3.3-acre parcel as originally planned. Also, Walgreen's has replaced CVS as the site's primary tenant.

Preliminary plans call for a 14,259-square-foot Walgreen's 3,000 square feet larger than the CVS would have been -- with a colonial style brick and stucco fašade. Preserved from the original plan is the coming of a "supersize" 11,172-square-foot state liquor store, topped with 5,000 square feet of office space. The store would be built along the southern end of the property near Wissahickon Avenue rather than on a site close to Bysher Avenue, as originally proposed.

Moreland representatives took pains to emphasize other alterations to the original site plan, which they said constitute improvements. These include the elimination of one of two planned access points for vehicles onto busy Bethlehem Pike and the movement of the liquor store's activity center" (entrances and exits, unloading of shipments) to the back of the building.

"We believe the plan that we have come up with is going to be an enhancement to the area," Blue said.

Neither the planning board nor Moreland Development were willing to speculate as to why the Allentown-based Hampton Real Estate Group was selling the property, which Hampton C.E.O. Mark Mendelson purchased from the estate of Robert McClosky in 1997. Controversy has swirled for years around the fate of the 260year-old inn, which Mendelson at one point had plans to demolish.

Last September, Springfield Township signed off on an agreement with Mendelson calling for the Black Horse Inn's relocation, at the developer's expense, to a former cow pasture at the back of the property in exchanee for approval of site construction Plans. It also called for ownership of the structure and the land immediately under it to pass to the Springfield Township Historical Society.

According to Moreland principal Joshua Petersohn, under the new proposal the firm would pay pay to move the inn to privately-held property located "probably pretty dose to our site" along the other side of the pike, and ownership of the structure would pass to that property owner. Township manager Don Berger noted that this proposal preserves the inn's "historic proximity" to the roadway.

Berger said that the owner in question did not wish to be identified until the deal was finalized. He speculated that the inn would probably be restored and "put to some kind of light commercial use."

While acknowledging that the Bysher Avenue residents and changes were an improvement on the existing plan, most of the approximately 60 Springfield Township residents in attendance last Tuesday appeared to be in opposition to the inn's move and expressed concern about traffic, lighting, and the necessity of bringing two new large retail establishments to Bethlehm Pike.

"How many people in this room feel that we need this?" resident Henry Friedberger asked the crowd during the public comment portion of meeting. After no hands were raised, he asked how many would like to see the township step in to buy the land and preserve the open space, a question met with a show of hands and applause.

Bysher Avenue residents and business owners expressed concems about traffic back-ups at the point where an existing liquor store exit will become a main two-way access point for the proposed 149-space parking lot. Others asked why it was necessary to develop the land given the abandoned former K-Mart and Pizza Hut sites located nearby. Petersohn replied that site suitability is determined by Walgreen's, but that visibility and parcel size may have been factors.

The bulk of public comment, however, concerned the fate of the inn.

Springfield Township Historical Society board member Cynthia Hamilton stated that her organization will accept moving the inn only as a "last resort" and asked Moreland to sign off on a national historic register designation before any such move took place. This would allow for financial incentives such as grants, easements or tax credits to apply to the property once it is moved, she said.

Doug Heller, a Hope Lodge board member, noted that moving historic structures is "highly frowned upon these days" by preservationists, giving as an example the relocated Free Quaker Meeting House near Independence Mall.

"That structure is no longer considered historically relevant," he warned. "Some people see this as beating a dead horse. I see it as beating a live horse ... We need to keep the Black Horse Inn in the same location."