Cheltenham Twp. introduces compromise proposal to address aging libraries, pools and community centers

How the township decides to renovate or consolidate its aging facilities has become a growing point of contention.

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A playground visible among several tall trees

The Conklin Pool & Recreation area in Elkins Park, Pa., in Jan., 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Cheltenham Township on Tuesday night unveiled a revised facilities plan, merging two opposing concepts to address its aging buildings, community centers, libraries and pools.

“The team has now developed a hybrid vision that optimizes and centralizes certain functions while maintaining community services that continue to honor a sense of place in our individual neighborhoods,” said Matthew Areman, president of the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners.

Like many historic townships, Cheltenham has long struggled to maintain its community assets, resulting in buildings falling short of safety codes, delayed pool openings and unsafe libraries in the winter.

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“Because of past neglect, the urgency to address every one of our facilities became so increasingly dire this board determined it had no choice but to act,” Areman said during the virtual meeting.

How the township decides to move forward, renovate or consolidate has become a growing point of contention in Cheltenham.

Over the last few months, the township’s contractors — KCBA Architects, Re:Vision and Snyder Hoffman Associates — have been incorporating community feedback into their exploration of fixing the township’s dilapidated facilities. Areman described it as a “pivot.”

A stair case with caution tape across it at the top.
Glenside Free Library in Glenside, Pa., in Jan. 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The new plan, referred to as Concept E, offers hybrid centralization. This proposal calls for the unification of primary library services at Wall Park, the retention of the soccer field, the reconstruction of Glenside and Conklin pools, as well as the redevelopment of its three community centers, La Mott, Rowland and Glenside.

“The other thing that we’ve been looking at is we’ve been doing some minor adjustments on the Breyer site of the municipal campus to pick up some additional efficiencies and think about flexibility for partnerships in the community,” said Drew Lavine, a partner architect with Re:Vision.

In this plan, the current public works building, the Elkins Park Library, the historic Shovel Shop and the Cheltenham Center for the Arts would all eventually be divested. Everything else would largely be renovated where it stands or partially incorporated at one of the centralized campuses on the Breyer Estate or Wall Park.

“It is a hybrid scheme because we’re still doing some centralization, but we’re also doing some stuff in the actual neighborhoods in the community,” Lavine said.

Contractors first debuted a 206-page facilities study in October 2023, presenting four proposals for township officials to consider. Three of the proposals called for the consolidation of the community assets into two campuses, which sparked a debate amongst residents.

Those who favor maintaining the status quo and renovating the dilapidated infrastructure believe it allows Cheltenham to remain a walkable and sustainable community. Supporters of consolidation welcome the idea of bigger, centralized facilities.

Concept E was designed with this discourse in mind.

“The goal here is to preserve our communities, our programming and our township character,” Lavine said.

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Judging by the public comments on Zoom, the new hybrid plan appeared to mostly please residents on both sides of the spectrum. Gerry Brown, with La Mott Citizens United, began her public comment with a “woo-hoo.”

The exterior of the Glenside Free Library
Glenside Free Library in Glenside, Pa., in Jan. 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Other community members said they felt as if the board responded well to the heated questions it received during previous meetings.

“I think this hybrid plan seems to be much more in line [with] what the residents wanted from our last meeting, so I’m actually amazed that you listened so well, and that this plan reflects it,” resident Doug Karan said while requesting more pickleball courts at the potential Wall Park campus.

Skeptics of the previous proposal, including former school board member Bill England, told the board that they liked Concept E’s community-centered approach, especially its focus on La Mott.

“I appreciate this plan, this revised vision,” England said. “It’s wonderful to know that the many comments, the emails, etc., were taken into consideration as this vision has evolved.”

Mary Kay Moran, director of the Cheltenham Township Library System, said the consolidation aligns with the organization’s strategic vision and will benefit the community.

“We need to consolidate CTLS into one location,” Moran said. “Having said that, we also recognize the tradition of walkable neighborhood library services throughout the township, and this plan would allow us to offer specific high-demand library services in small satellite locations in existing township buildings. So this dovetails and aligns very nicely with the library system’s strategic planning.”

Julie Haywood, board president of the Cheltenham Township Library System, voiced her support for the plan, highlighting the work to develop the existing Glenside Library into a satellite location, but raised some concerns about the lack of clarity regarding the future of the Cheltenham Center for the Arts.

Several other community members echoed similar concerns.

“It’s a very highly utilized building,” resident Liane Sher said. “It covers all age groups [and offers a] wide variety of types of art. I think it would really be sad to lose all the projects and types of classes and broad expansive art available to everybody that’s there.”

Sher said she understood the building is in poor shape, but that it is a fixture in Cheltenham’s artistic community.

Areman said that while divesting is the likely option, that doesn’t necessarily mean selling it to the highest bidder. He insinuated that there are other avenues forward, such as gifting the property to an entity.

“From a programming point of view, [the] arts in Cheltenham is important, so there’s not an intention to lose anything. But that particular property is in a tough shape, so that is the basis for the recommendation,” Areman said.

From a desire for more collaboration with the school district to concerns that Cheltenham Village has been forgotten, residents still have overarching questions regarding the future of the township’s facilities.

The community will have more time to digest its options and provide feedback.

“While we are not going to be voting tonight, we do need to move this process along,” Areman said. “So I expect that this vision or some modified version of it will be presented for debate and vote in the near future, likely at our next month’s legislative meeting in April.”

Regardless of which option the township ultimately chooses, the massive undertaking’s price tag is expected to hover around $100 million. Areman said the township is pursuing all avenues for additional funding resources.

With the help of U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean’s office, the township has already secured a $3.8 million federal grant for the project.

“Additional funding sources for community projects, alternative energy and trails are on the radar,” Areman said. “More will be sought once this concept sort of is adopted or a concept like this is adopted and the goal again is to obtain as much funding as possible, whether it’s through grants, strategic partnerships, creative financing — get as much funding as possible before we go either to the bond market or to our taxpayers for funding options.”

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