Protecting Cheltenham Township’s residential areas
Janice L. Booker
Suburban Life North; Covering Eastern Montgomery County
February/March 1969, Pages 12-14 & 33
[Note: Around 1993, the Melrose Park Neighbors Association grew out of the Melrose Park Improvement Association. We changed our name before we filed for IRS status as a 501.C3 non-profit about ten years later.]
Picture Melrose Park about 60 or 70 years ago:
Sparsely settled, large imposing mansions in the grand manner surrounded by
enormous tracts undeveloped land. The railroad comprised the township
transportation system and stopped every two or three blocks to
discharge and pick up passengers. The patriarchs supervised their large
acreage and the matriarchs met occasionally for tea. When winter came, the
citizens hibernated. Social activities centered around the family and life
was comfortable - but sometimes very lonely. There seemed to be a need
for communication with one’s neighbor, a reaching out for relationships
beyond the family. So, with man’s instinctive urge to herd together,
the Melrose Park Improvement Association came into existence.
The organization was unincorporated, and its
inception clearly predates zoning ordinances in Cheltenham Township, which
were started in 1926. It continued for a long time as a joint social and
civic group, undertaking mild and uncontroversial civic projects.
Approximately five years ago, two citizens, who were relatively new to
Melrose Park, joined the Association and solidified its efforts as a force
in protecting the community’s residential quality.
(Prior to that time, the Association had never
litigated a zoning question. Litigation became a major function of the group
where they opposed zoning changes and this process, sometimes by sheer
delay, has caused the Association to be successful in several of its
The two men are S. Gordon Elkins, a purposeful
young attorney who lives at 1003 Sharpless Road, and Samuel I. Oshiver, a
colorful architect, who lives in an imposing home of his own design at 1103
Mr. Oshiver has just retired as President of
the Melrose Park Improvement Association, a post he held for two years. An
election held at the end of January placed the President’s job in the hands
of Mr. Elkins, who had been Mr. Oshiver’s Vice President, so that the two
men, who have led the Association in the past few years to the position of
the most active civic group in Cheltenham Township, will continue the
policies already established. Other officers just elected include: first
vice president, Brian Gaffrney second vice president, Anita Rossman,
secretary, James L. Price; treasurer, William Holladay,
The Association covers Melrose Park basically,
but other Township residents in the area are welcome to participate, since
the group involves itself in questions covering all aspects of the Township.
The function of the group is to foster civic
improvement; keep housing and other enterprises within the character of the
neighborhood; and keep the citizenry alert to possible infringements or
laxities of the zoning ordinances.
As simply as possible, the zoning codes work
this way: An ordinance is passed which stipulates under which classification
a building is characterized (various residential groupings, multiple
dwellings, institutional, commercial, etc. The determination is made on the
basis of the health, safety and welfare of the community and existing
structure of the area. Any change in an ordinance is subject to the approval
of the Township Commissioners. However, without changing the ordinance, a
variance may be obtained when the literal enforcement of the
ordinance will create a hardship and the variance is consistent with the
spirit of the ordinance. The stipulation is that the hardship cannot be
self-inflicted and the burden of proof is on the applicant. The Zoning Board
of Adjustment is empowered to rule on the granting of variances and special
exceptions, and these need not be determined by the Commissioners. The name
has just been changed to the Zoning Hearing Board and current officers are:
chairman, Earle K. Wagner; secretary, Gordon J. Mertz; member, Walter Ellman;
solicitor, Jay G. Ochroch.
Though one would think the Melrose Park
Improvement Association and the Township Board of Commissioners and the
Zoning Hearing Board would be in accord on all zoning issues, since all
groups want to stay within the legal limits of the ordinance provisions,
there have been areas of conflict.
A case in point:
At the corner of Elkins Avenue and Old York
Road there was a local landmark, the Whittaker Estate, a large, grand,
Spanish villa on about four acres of land. This is an example of the type of
property whose fate the Association is most anxious to control. Although
the Association was prepared to litigate the Whittaker property, it never
came to that. The property had been sold and a developer proposed a twostory
garden apartment building to house approximately 30 units. The neighbors had
been polled, given certain guarantees by the developer, and had agreed not
to contest the construction. The property was under a restrictive covenant
according to zoning regulations, and the Cheltenham Township Board of
Commissioners relinquished the restriction in order to grant the permit. The
Association fought against this because they felt a garden apartment at that
corner was not an asset to the community.
Their preference is to have these large
old corner properties on York Road, like the Whittaker Estate, sold for
institutional purposes, such as a school, church or synagogue, because this
type of property acts as a buffer. In effect, it seals the property for the
adjoining neighborhood and maintains its status, whereas a commercial
enterprise, according to Mr. Elkins, starts to reflect inward and encroach
on surrounding areas.
the appeal to deny the restrictive covenant grant was lost by the
Association, they won in the long run because they planned
to appeal the building permit
approval, and while this was waiting to come before the courts, the
developer got tired of waiting and resold the property to the Greek Orthodox
Church at Elkins and Park Avenues who decided they wanted to expand
their facilities. So now the corner will be what the Association hoped for,
a buffer area epitomized by a religious institution.
When officers of the group discuss their
efforts to contain commercialization of property in Cheltenham Township,
they point indignantly to Old York Road in Abington. They cite that area as
their example of what can happen to
a residential section when zoning regulations become secondary to
monetary gains for the township, and commercialization takes over. It is
their creed that Old York Road in Cheltenham will not be a display ground
for hamburger stands, used car lots and discount stores. Their intent is to
retain the residential quality of the neighborhood along its chief artery as
well as within the side streets.
Robert M. Lam is an energetic and articulate
man who has represented Elkins Park on the Township Board of Commissioners
for twelve years. As a partner in the real estate firm of Lam and Buchsbaum,
his knowledge of township zoning codes is comprehensive for he utilizes it
in his business as well as his official responsibilities. Mr. Lam has an
interesting ambivalence about the Melrose Park Improvement Association. On
one hand, he approves of their purposes, As a township commissioner he, too,
is interested in maintaining the quality of the area, so that in many ways
the feelings of the Commissioners, the Zoning Board and the Association are
in accord. In many respects he feels the group has been a constructive
influence because they activate the neighborhood, and if people are not
aware of what’s happening, apathy results. His complaint is they have a
tendency to overreact and too frequently are negative in their
attitude. In addition, he feels they often invade the zoning hearings with
arguments against changes that are removed from their immediate area of
In discussing the philosophy of land use, Mr.
Lam talks about the extremes of the developer and the property user who
seeks to exploit. The surrounding property owners are involved but not
affected by a change in land use. The parties who become concerned are those
who fear economic repercussions and a reflection of their own social
position, and because these factors are so personal, they tend to be
inflexible and more concerned about what’s best for them, rather than what’s
best for the community. In the middle of the lobbies that form to support
their point of view are the people in the general community and their
Commissioners. People who are supporting their own bias are well intentioned
but don’t always understand the law. People in civic associations are
equally persuasive and these strains in different directions cause
tremendous pressures for the judging body.
Mr. Lam does not indict civic associations for
their stands; he feels many are frequently just and even developers can
The Ogontz Redevelopment Area constitutes a
current difference of opinion between the Commissioners and the leadership
of the Association. The area is involved in a vast urban renewal program,
supported by federal, state and county funds, and will completely redesign
the area on Old York Road bordering between Church Road and the railroad
tracks south. Stores on the west side of the street are to be torn down,
many of them rebuilt, with parking space behind them. Most business
establishments on the east side will remain, except for the area approaching
Church Road. The eyesore of the hillside adjoining the railroad tracks is to
be eliminated. Forrest Avenue will exit into York Road at a different spot,
and it is hoped by the Commissioners that eventually the library and other
municipal areas will be brought into this project. A scale model of the
proposed redevelopment is on display on the ground floor of the Cheltenham
Township building in Elkins Park.
The complaint of the Association, voiced by Mr.
Elkins, is that promised open, town hearings were not held; that the initial
projections of this redevelopment project are not being realized; and what
is now under consideration does not go far enough, so that insufficient tax-ratables
will be created to mean anything significant to the township, Mr. Osbiver
reflects on this from his vantage point as an architect and civic planner
that the proposals do not reflect the basic requirement of redevelopment; it
is not being handled as a problem and the plans do not solve problems. The
area should produce a much more taxratable
return in order to be productive and
functional. Mr. Oshiver is particularly concerned that the
finished product will offer nothing to the community and is, indeed.,
inconsistent with the needs of the community, He feels the plans reflect a lack of knowledge and study of
requirements and would prefer to see a more important building on the site,
such as a large apartment complex. He believes that by increasing the height
and decreasing the ground coverage, rather than utilizing the ground for
building, an important tax advantage could be gained; it would take nothing
from the school community because there are few children in apartment units
of this type; the building could incorporate many of the stores that will
remain or be rebuilt; and the excess ground could be used for community
purposes such as an Art Centre, Community Theater, recreational facilities,
and encompassing and enriching the facilities of Wall Park.
Mr. Oshiver’s artistic leanings are evident as
he talks passionately of a plaza featuring sculpture, beautiful as well as
productive buildings, and capitalizing on the beauty of the small creek that
runs behind the library and Shoemaker School. He feels strongly the
redevelopment presentation is not aesthetically pleasing and that the entire
project really has no purpose as it stands.
He feels the area lends itself to creative
exploitation, and a pedestrian approach will result instead. The whole
purpose of urban renewal is jeopardized by this project, Mr. Oshiver says.
He feels this undertaking should establish what the township needs, not just
enhance the shopping facilities, and that all surrounding municipal
buildings should be incorporated into a cohesive unit for the benefit of the
In contrast, Mr. Lam is delighted with all
aspects of the Ogontz Redevelopment Plans. The plan came into being about 7
or 8 years ago when the township authorized a Planning Commission which was
presented with the problem of the Ogontz area. The suggestion was made then
to apply to the federal government for urban renewal funds; the merchants
involved were very cooperative; the plans presented seemed constructive and
the grant was accomplished.
Results anticipated are easing of traffic
congestion and higher taxes from the redeveloped stores. Right now,
developers for the actual construction are being considered and their plans
evaluated. The Board of Commissioners, with the help of the Redevelopment
Authority, will make the final decision, and completion is anticipated for
An instance of outstanding cooperation among
all parties concerned is cypifted by the story concerning the Miller Tract
which runs along Cheltenham Avenue from Old York Road to Mountain Avenue.
This was under restrictive covenant, and when the property came up for a
zoning change, the Association won its repeal to retain the status quo. The
potential problem, which materialized into a cooperative, satisfying effort,
involved the corners of Cheltenham and Mountain Avenues, now the
professional offices of Doctors Sidney Wolfe, Hyman Kahn and Perry Dornstein.
When these physicians first wanted to build
offices on that property, Dr. Wolfe came to the Association and told them of
his plans. He and his architect appeared at a meeting, presented their
building plans, changed the design to conform with the wishes of the
Association, and both the neighborhood and the doctors are delighted with
the results. The Association points to this as an example of their desire to
protect, not prevent. They appeared before the Zoning Board and supported
the petition of the physicians, as they did in the case of the Greek
Orthodox Church. They also did not protest the erection of Coventry House,
because it replaced an old steel mill with a valuable tax property, but they
did succeed in blocking an apartment house opposite Coventry House.
A case recently decided by the Zoning Hoard in
which a variance was denied, to the satisfaction of the Association,
concerns the property at 7453 Old York Road. This home had been purchased by
Dr. Sidney Rappaport, a psychologist, in October of 1967, for use as offices
for his management consulting firm.
The property was ineligible for variance when
it was purchased because it had not been vacant for the year required by the
Zoning Board. An insurance company had previously been turned down in a
request to convert the home to executive offices. When the neighbors became
aware that the property was being used for commercial purposes by Dr.
Rappaport, it came under the surveillance of the Melrose Park Improvement
Association and the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The law states that a
variance may be obtained to utilize a maximum of one half of one floor of a
home for professional purposes, providing the user lives on the premises.
The house in question is typical of the many
old, fine residences in Melrose Park, and reflects the statelinesss and
elegance of an era no longer with us. Inside the front door one finds a
gracious center hall, furnished with restored antiques and an oriental rug.
To the left is Dr. Rappaport’s office. It is highceliinged and spacious,
furnished like a living room, with an antique desk set fn the bay window.
The floor is covered with an
oriental rug; a round table with comfortable chairs is set before the front
window, and the fire glows all the time. It Is just this setting that makes
Dr. Rappaport contend that he had no intention of changing the character of
the property. There were no exterior changes and on the interior only
improvements in maintenance had been made.
Dr. Rappaport, who states he never intended to
disguise his reason for purchase of the property, bought the home in the
name of his company, Management Counselors Corporation. He is a clinical
psychologist, and his company does evaluation and counseling for company
executive personnel. Last year he processed 298 people. One of the
complaints of the Association was the number of cars parked on the street.
Dr. Rappaport contends that he and his associate cannot handle more than
five people a day, so that in itself limits the number of cars. There is a
parking lot behind the house that can accommodate six vehicles.
Dr. Rappaport readily admits that when he
bought the property he made no application for a variance because he was not
aware it was necessary. He assumed, because of the location on Old York Road
and because, by his estimate eighty percent of the properties in that area
of Old York Road are utilized for nonresidential purposes, (two blocks down
is a company whose business is similar to his own), that there would be no
problem and he anticipated no need for application. When it came to his
attention that the Association was aroused, he made attempts to contact them
through his attorney. Word came to Dr. Rappaport that the Association would
not meet with him, although they expressed anger that he did not contact
A series of summonses, misunderstandings and
Dr. Rappaport’s hearing ensued. He was fined $300.00 for being in violation
of the zoning code. He then proceeded to move into the premises with his
wife, as living on the property made him eligible to apply for a variance.
Dr. Rappaport says they tried to live there for a while but the realities of
traffic noise and inadequate heat made it impossible, and they moved back to
their home in Wyncote.
There have been two offers on the property made
to Dr. Rappaport. He considers them both inadequate considering his original
purchase price and the renovations he has made in the past year. Since the
variance has now been denied, he cannot conduct his business there and he
does not wish to live there, so the final resolution is still to be seen.
Dr. Rappaport, in a benign way, considers the
Association shortsighted in their disapproval of him. He feels that his
efforts to maintain the property as it was intended to appear (not changing
the exterior, keeping the interior looking like a private home, furnishing
it as such,) could only be an asset rather than a detriment to the
community. He calls it “spot zoning” in reverse when so much of the area is
commercial and the Zoning Board chooses one property in contest to remain
In his evaluation of the Melrose Park
Improvement Association, Mr. Oshiver contends the group is not comprised of
“againsters.” They want to help positive efforts and squelch negative ones.
They seek the involvement of the community and hope to help represent points
of view of individuals living adjacent to properties in question.
He believes that proper planning is essential
for the future of Old York Road.
Apartments and office buildings can be built
where there is sufficient ground protection around them. There is a need in
the township for a viable Planning Commission whose purpose it would be, Mr.
Oshiver contends, to evaluate the future needs of the township. Its members
should be experienced and knowledgeable in the field of civic planning; they
should operate within every request for zoning changes; and their
recommendations should carry weight with the Zoning Board and/or
The township actually does have a Planning
Advisory Board but the final decisions are in the hands of the
The leaders of the Melrose Park improvement
Association are proud of the unusual amount of concentrated action that
characterizes their group. They feel it is active, volatile, and courageous,
that their cooperative efforts have borne much fruit, and would hope that
there would be a central organization of citizens from all corners of the
township. Mr. Gordon Mertz, Secretary of the Zoning Hearing Board, in
talking about the Association, said, “We pay a lot of attention to the
Association. We are influenced by them, and their point of view is given a
lot of consideration. That is not to say that their opposition or approval
of a question determines our action, but we are certainly influenced by
So that, though there may be contentions,
personality conflicts, opposite points of view, etc. on individual issues,
by and large the Melrose Park Improvement Association, the Zoning; Board and
the Township Commissioners have the same purposes to motivate the
community to action; to retain the standards and values of the neighborhoods
within the township;. and to keep its character constant, so long as these
things satisfy the health, safety and welfare of the community.
David Roland of the Old York Road Historical Association for providing us a
copy of this