After 12 years, South Jersey town's battle over former Bancroft site may be far from over

Most of the buildings at the former Bancroft campus at Hopkins Lane and Kings Highway West, in Haddonfield, have been boarded up as the struggle over the 19.2-acre piece of prime Haddonfield real estate continues.

Bancroft, the extraordinary school for special-needs children that was founded in Haddonfield more than a century ago, moved to Mount Laurel in December.

The borough commission has since given its blessing to a developer’s latest plan to build 80 market-rate townhouses, as well as 10 to 12 affordable units, on a portion of the lovely, leafy 19.2-acre campus at Kings Highway and Hopkins Lane.

Renderings of the townhouses by architect Josh Eckert, who lives in Haddonfield, show handsome rows of structures of a design and scale that would readily blend with the borough’s streetscapes.

But the struggle over the future of the site — where vacant Bancroft buildings have been secured to prevent pre-demolition scavenging — continues.

“We have a plan for development, open space, and historic preservation there,” Haddonfield Mayor Neal Rochford said.

“We still have to finalize and approve the redevelopment plan, and the developer has to go before the [planning and historic preservation] boards again. But I thought we had this thing wrapped up.”

Former Mayor Letitia “Tish” Colombi, among the plaintiffs in a March lawsuit targeting the affirmative vote by Rochford and his fellow commissioners, said the borough had “made a really bad deal. And somebody’s got to speak up.”

Anyone familiar with the Bancroft saga, highlights of which have included a fiercely fought bond referendum that failed in 2013, as well as a subsequent and more successful effort to head off a proposed addiction treatment center on the site,  is unlikely to be surprised that a resolution may not be imminent.

Allegations about “secret” commission meetings, headlines such as “Put the brakes on the Bancroft boondoggle!” in local publications, and urgent social media posts seek to delay if not derail the project at all costs.

But the borough already has spent $12.9 million to buy the property, with interest payments on the bonds coming due later this year.

So anyone tempted to dismiss all this as yet another teapot tempest in a town where civic warfare once raged over a hot dog vendor and a house painted purple would be making a mistake. There are serious people, reasonable arguments, and honest efforts on all sides.

There are high stakes as well: What happens to this prime piece of real estate, the largest such site remaining in Haddonfield, is likely to have a lasting impact on the 2.9-square-mile borough of 11,500.

Residents already are stressed over Haddonfield’s property taxes, and concerned about the aging facilities of the borough’s highly regarded public school system.

Some fear the schools would be unable to accommodate the significant number of new students the townhouses might bring; various enrollment impact estimates are being publicly floated, and debated.

Other critics of the new plan are more concerned about the commission’s willingness to accommodate developer Brian O’Neill’s revisions, while ignoring creative conceptual changes suggested by planning board chairman John LaProcido.

O’Neill did not respond to messages I left with an employee at his Montgomery County, Pa., office, or to the questions I emailed him last week.

The developer has agreed to retain the tree-lined boundary, or berm, along Kings Highway.  But he also seeks to build 80, rather than 70, townhouses of a maximum floor area of more than 2,000 square feet.

Colombi said the $500,000-plus units are not of the price, size or layout the borough envisioned as “age-targeted” toward empty nesters looking to downsize and stay in Haddonfield.

The borough “has had a longtime commitment to provide some sort of housing for seniors,” said Daniel Tompkins, who along with Colombi and former Mayor Jack Tarditi is among the eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

A hearing is set for June 26 in Camden before Superior Court Judge Deborah Silverman Katz, said Richard M. Hluchan, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Borough Commissioner Jeff Kasko, who served as mayor during several years of the Bancroft struggle, said it’s time to get the project built.

“We are pretty much at the eleventh hour of a long process,” he said. “We have debated and worked on this for many years. We have a plan, we have a developer … so we’re ready to get shovels in the ground.

“I don’t believe the changes upset or ruin the whole plan,” said Kasko.

Said Rochford: “I’m confident that anybody who is reasonable and looks at our actions will understand what we did was in the best interests of Haddonfield.”

He pointed out that one of the goals is ensuring that the purchase of the property does not lead to a tax increase.

“If we delay indefinitely, sooner or later what we promised will be revenue-neutral” won’t be, Rochford said. The 10 additional market-rate units would boost the annual payment in lieu of taxes the development will generate, he added.

Camera icon CITY INVINCIBLE ARCHITECTS
Rendering shows the variety of facade designs of townhouses to be built on the Bancroft site in Haddonfield.

Supporters of the plan also note that Bancroft’s Lullworth Hall — the Victorian mansion that’s a Kings Highway landmark — will be preserved, along with its carriage house. Open space on the property that is adjacent to Haddonfield Memorial High School could be developed for recreational or scholastic sports use.

All well and good. But the opportunity presented by this beautiful piece of ground — where Margaret Bancroft pretty much invented special education — is extraordinary.

And while I respect the good work of Rochford, past mayors and commissioners, and others involved in the effort — including the architect — the return on the community’s efforts over the last dozen years does not seem like enough.

In the 1960s, the borough challenged plans to build the PATCO rail line at or above grade in the heart of town.

The added cost and complexity of sending PATCO below-ground through downtown were certainly worth it. Taking a breath and taking another look at how best to create something extraordinary on the Bancroft site would be worthwhile as well.