Haverford's rec-center workout

Plans for the old hospital site took a tortuous path.

Haverford State Hospital's 23 red-brick buildings are to be demolished as part of the "Haverford Reserve" plan.

After years of meetings, a lawsuit, and a grand jury investigation, Haverford Township is on the verge of creating what other area communities can only dream about - a 128-acre recreation area with sports fields, walking trails, wetlands and woods.

Not to mention a gym, a pool, and maybe a climbing wall.

"This is a pretty unique opportunity" for an older East Coast community, said Ken Ballard, a Denver recreation-facility design consultant who is working on the project.

It became possible after Haverford State Hospital closed in 1998 and left unused 209 acres in the middle of the thickly settled town.

The township purchased the land and is on track to approve final plans for the property that blend housing with open space and the recreation facilities.

Expected to be included are sports fields, a summer splash park, indoor gyms, a pool, an indoor walking track, community rooms, and a dog park. And, probably, that climbing wall. Nonresidents will be admitted for an additional fee.

Tim Denny, Haverford's Recreation Department director, envisions a day where three generations of a family can pull up with Fido in tow and select the recreational activity of their choosing.

"We have been handed this gem," Denny said. "If we cut and polish it right, it will truly be a jewel."

But not without far more effort and aggravation than anyone expected.

In 2002, the township purchased the site from the state for $3.5 million. The nine commissioners were a divided group who frequently held meetings in violation of the Sunshine Act, according to a grand jury report.

The township entered into an agreement with two area builders to craft a plan for housing, recreation and open space that ultimately was rejected, then revised.

The developer allegedly received inside bid information, according to a grand jury report this year. A law firm brought in to assist with the sale was given a $600,000 advance without a board vote. Commissioner Andy Lewis alerted the District Attorney's Office to the alleged misconduct in 2004.

The commissioners delayed approval of the project while they wrangled over the plan. There were contentious public meetings. The developer sued over the delays but later dropped the suit.

Commissioner Fred Moran was charged with bribery for allegedly asking the developer to pay the township an extra $500,000 to ensure needed zoning approvals. He has pleaded not guilty.

Finally, in 2006, the commissioners approved what is called "Haverford Reserve," which sets aside 40 acres for 100 small carriage houses and 198 age-restricted condominiums. The builders agreed to pay the township $17.5 million. The rest of the tract is for the recreation area. The hospital's 23 red-brick buildings will be demolished.

The money from the sale to the developer will be used to offset the costs of the recreation plan. The remaining funds will come from grants, fees and township coffers.

The seven township commissioners have to approve the final design; a series of public meetings is scheduled, and a vote is likely to occur by year's end.

Construction of the sports fields could begin in about 18 months.

"It is just a matter of tweaking it and fine-tuning it," said Lewis, who was instrumental in developing the plan. "It is clearly going to happen."

Township officials and residents are still meeting to discuss what kind of amenities the center should have.

For example: What kind of swimming pool?

The choices are a competition pool for swim teams or a leisure facility that would bring in more revenue.

A competition pool is a standard rectangle and kept at a cooler temperature. A leisure pool can be any configuration and have slides, shallow areas and lap lanes, but is not suitable for swim meets.

There are very few public recreation centers in the Philadelphia suburbs. Plymouth Township's community center and RiverWinds Community Center in West Deptford are two relatively new facilities, but they lack the large outdoor areas that will be available in Haverford.

Discussing the Greater Plymouth Community Center, which opened in 2000, Karen Franck, Plymouth Township's parks and recreation director, said it was unusual to have a single community develop such a center.

Franck said counties are typically better able to fund the large community recreation facilities that are very popular in Western, Midwestern and some Southern states.

Plymouth Township, as a first-class municipality, was able to use grants and township funds to buy a former private school, she said. The complex had 276,000 visitors last year.

Haverford officials said that while their complex would be primarily for the township, others would be able to use the facilities by paying higher fees. No charges have been determined.

"People are excited about a first-rate rec center," said Stephen D'Emilio, president of the township commissioners. He said more people had asked him about the sports complex than about where the houses and condos would go.

A public meeting at which a consultant will discuss the recreation center is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Haverford High School.

To see plans for the Haverford recreational area, go to http://go.philly.com/haverford

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.

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