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Source: Chestnut Hill Local
Date: August 14, 2003
Byline: James Sturdivant

Springfield okays revised plans

In what should finally signal the end of a decade-long debate over the fate of Flourtown's Black Horse Inn, the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners voted on August 5 to allow a developer to proceed with plans to move the inn from the site it has occupied on Bethlehem Pike for the last 260 years.

The 3-2 decision from a truncated board came at the end of a marathon, two-and-a-half hour special meeting at the Springfield Township municipal building, during which local residents and board members waxed at turns combative and philosophical in response to what was believed by some to be a turning point for the future both of the inn and of the township itself.

"I walk up and down these halls a lot," board chairman Bob McGrory said at one point during what had become a surprisingly informal public bull session. "And we memorialize Whitemarsh Hall. Which is gone..."

"Shame on us," interjected audience member Doug Heller, a member of the board at Hope Lodge, a historic property in Whitemarsh Township saved from the developer's wrecking ball.

"...There are a lot of people who would like to roll the dice on the Black Horse Inn. And I'm not one of them," McGrory concluded.

McGrory was referring to an exhibit in the municipal building chronicling the history of what was once the township's most famous home, dubbed "America's Versailles," built by Philadelphia financier Edward Stotesbury in 1916 and torn down in 1986. He was also referring to the township's need to make hard decisions in order to preserve its historic structures, even if that preservation comes at a high cost - in this case, moving the inn.

In the end, the board's vote came down to whether they were willing to gamble that rejecting an offer from Moreland Developers, who have entered into an agreement of sale with current owners the Mendelson Family Children's Trust, could somehow save the inn in its present location and lead to its eventual restoration.

Several preservationists present, including Heller and the Springfield Township Historical Society's T. Scott Kreilick, urged the board to take that risk.

Heller asked Moreland's Robert Blue if the township's rejection of a revised stipulated agreement with the developer would lead to the main corporate client, Walgreen's, backing out of the deal. Blue replied that it would.

"We could buy time," Heller said, acknowledging that Mendelson could then choose to simply knock the inn down, a point also stressed by several board members who would eventually vote to approve the agreement.

Kreilick asked Blue if Moreland could get an extension on the deadline set by Mendelson for acceptance of the sale agreement, to which Blue said that they had tried and could not. He also suggested that rejecting the agreement altogether might not signal a death sentence for the inn.

"If the agreement is not approved, how does that suggest that Mendelson would automatically apply for a demolition permit?" he asked.

Board member Tim Lawn, who said he used to bartend at the Black Horse during his college days, presented an impassioned argument for approving the agreement based on the premise that another opportunity to save the inn was unlikely and that Moreland has proven itself willing to work with the township and respect neighbor's concerns.

"The Black Horse Inn has been vacant since 1991, and the building is falling apart," he said. "We can't just sit here. We've heard there's another buyer - I've been hearing that for the three years I've been on the board, and I don't believe it."

Lawn said that a moved inn was preferable to "a pile of bricks" and that he wanted to be able to walk his daughters through a restored Black Horse building some day.

"I don't want to see the Black Horse on the township building wall because we rejected a developer who we gave 16 suggestions [for plan improvements or alterations] to and they approved every one of them."

Those suggestions were made by the township Planning Commission after a July 15 meeting in which revised development plans were presented by Moreland. The new plans call for a 14,359 square-foot Walgreen's drug store (slightly larger than the CVS originally proposed for the site), an 11,172 square-foot state liquor "superstore" at the southern end of the property and a 149-space parking lot with access from Bysher Avenue and Bethlehem Pike. It was also announced at that meeting that the inn, originally slated to be moved to the back of the property, would probably be moved to an undisclosed location across the pike.

In a letter sent to McGrory from Joseph Gerber, president of the planning commission, township planners listed as "concerns" issues such as lighting, landscaping, internal traffic management, crosswalks and the exterior look of the buildings. The letter also stated, "...the two overriding concerns of both the Commission and the neighbors were the preservation of the Black Horse Inn tavern structure and traffic concerns."

In his Presentation kicking off last week's meeting, township manager Don Berger made the point that the drug and liquor stores would not add to traffic if they were not an independent draw.

"Reasonable people will probably differ over whether this is going to be a destination site" a place visited along with other nearby businesses, he said.

Township solicitor Joe Bagley pointed out later in the meeting that the existing liquor store on the site is already the most profitable in Southeast Pennsylvania.

Kreilick noted his discomfort with the fact that none of the plans for the Black Horse Inn's move have been finalized, a point reiterated by Kathleen Lunn, a candidate this fall for commissioner in Springfield Township's 1st Ward.

"There's so little information being given out to people. That makes it difficult for it to be a public process. We don't even know if [the inn] will definitely be moved to a location along the pike."

Some were ready to concede the inevitability of the Black Horse's move in the hope that the issue would become a catalyst for efforts to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

"People are really concerned about the whole township. We've been losing it bit by bit by bit by bit," said resident Henry Friedberger, who called the agreement a 'stab in the back" to those trying to promote walkability and a village-style development on the pike.

Resident Tim Sager said that the township should insure that whatever is built conforms to the vision for the pike's future being developed by groups like the Flourtown Erdenheim Enhancement Association.

"The Black Horse is done for as far as I'm concerned," he said. "We need to create a building that in the future could house another, nicer store ... If there is [a plan for] a walking type thing like Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, do we create [that], or is it going to be another strip mall?"