Sunday, July 21, 2013

Without Lynnewood Hall, Cheltenham is just another suburb

Type "Lynnewood Hall" into Google Maps. See it? It comes right up. That's how infamous the Horace Trumbauer mansion has become.

For the past two decades, Richard Yoon, pastor for the First Korean Church of New York and a surgeon, has been battling with the Cheltenham Township over turning his property into a church. Since 1998 the township has refused any variance that would allow operating a church or school in this residential neighborhood.

But look back at that map. Why? Aside from the fact that Lynnewood Hall's land is a small reprieve of green amid a sea of sprawling suburbia, it's around the corner from a mall. How is refusing a church or school in the neighborhood's best interest, especially when you consider the mansion has been all but vacant for twenty years?

Yoon has been paying over $100,000 in taxes on the property every year, taxes that would be exempt if it were a church or school. The decision likely has to do with taxes. Taxes in Cheltenham Township are insane, and the desire to seek taxable development is reflected in commissioner Harvey Portner's statement, "it can be and should be developed into something magnificent."

There are two problems with his statement, two problems that plague politics in the Philadelphia region.

Portner is playing the part of a development speculator without actually being a developer. We see this all over Philadelphia. Politicians grant demolition licenses hoping that development will come, and it never does.

This is particularly troublesome with an historic property in a township like Cheltenham. It's not the Main Line so we're not going to see the mansion fall into the hands of a wealthy philanthropist. We're also not going to see it make way for an even more fantastic project.

Based on Portner's statement, the best he can hope for is more suburbia that will slightly exceed the tax the township currently sees from the property. At worst, it will change hands, falls into disrepair, gets razed, and never become anything. Developers aren't exactly fighting to build in Cheltenham.

This brings up the second problem with Portner's statement: the township's lack of regard for its history.

Let's be honest, the best use for this property isn't as a church or school. Ideally, a rich eccentric would buy it and live there. But that's not happening.

The most realistic way to save this property is tax exempt, either as Yoon's church or as a non-profit historic house museum.

The township's leaders don't seem to understand the benefits that come with a site like this, the pride that finds its way to its neighbors. Without Lynnewood Hall, Cheltenham is just another indistinguishable suburb. 

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