Bancroft, the venerable residential and day school for special needs students, is leaving Haddonfield for Mount Laurel before the end of December.
But after a decade, controversy about the future of the Bancroft site — a 19.2-acre jewel atop a bluff on the borough's Kings Highway East gateway — grinds on and on.
"It's been 10 years worth of torture," Haddonfield Planning Board Chairman John LaProcido said Tuesday, just before the second of two laborious nights of public hearings and discussions concluded at 11 p.m.
The tone of the second session was rather collegial as the board trudged through just two of the 14 amendments the borough commission proposes to make to its 2016 Bancroft redevelopment plan.
Many of the changes focus on a townhouse complex proposed for eight acres along Kings Highway west of Hopkins Lane. How tall and where on the site the new dwellings would be, what they would look like, and whether they would detract from or add to the leafy and lovely ambience of the borough of 11,500 are major concerns.
"We just want to make sure we do it right," LaProcido told a borough hall audience that included three former mayors, a table or two of lawyers and planners, and about 50 residents.
Said former Mayor Jack Tarditi, who had urged fellow residents to attend the meetings: "This negotiation [between the developer and the commissioners] has been going on for months. We didn't know anything about it, you [the planning board] didn't know anything about it, and now we're trying … to modify our plan to fit [the developer's] plan. I don't think that's a very good idea."
LaProcido, a managing principal at the Philadelphia architectural firm L2Partridge, departed from protocol and gave a compelling 25-minute presentation of what he described as an "alternative conceptual plan" for the Bancroft housing. He devised the alternative on his own to take into account public concerns as well as those of the commissioners and the developer.
Haddonfield has long hoped to create housing that would primarily appeal to empty nesters looking to downsize while remaining close to the borough's walkable heart. Open space, recreational areas, and preservation of historic Bancroft buildings east of Hopkins Lane also are part of the redevelopment plan.
With a microphone and a PowerPoint display, LaProcido outlined a concept — 50 two-unit townhouses, 40 with first-floor 'flats' and 10 affordable units — with parking below or at grade. These 100 units could be accommodated in about half as many buildings as the 20 envisioned in the conceptual plan submitted by developer 2 Hopkins Lane LLC.
That company is owned by Brian O'Neill, whose earlier plan for a posh residential addiction-treatment facility on the Bancroft site rocked the borough in 2015, after a plan to allow the Haddonfield school district to buy the property was shot down by voters in a bitterly divisive referendum. The borough purchased the tract for $12.9 million in 2016.
LaProcido's concept, which he emphasized is "neither a site plan nor a design," was generally well-received.
"A very creative approach," said planner Philip Caton, whose firm produced the Bancroft redevelopment plan.
"Some of your ideas are good ideas," said Jack Plackter, a lawyer for the developer.
"Absolutely brilliant," former Mayor Tish Colombi said by phone the morning after the marathon meeting. "John put a lot of thought into it. This is a way for us to stop talking and do something!"
Not so fast, said Mayor Neal Rochford.
"I was disappointed the board could not get through all 14 of the amendments," he told me Wednesday. "I would like to hear from the full board regarding those amendments first before looking at an alternative. I would like to do a little more research myself to see if this [alternative] model has worked elsewhere."
Others in the community said they are concerned about the potential impact on the school system, said Brian Kelly, administrator of the lively Haddonfield United page on Facebook. He said a complex offering attractively priced 'flats' targeted at (but not restricted to) empty nesters could also attract families with children.
That would make another of the borough's goals — for the Bancroft site housing to be "revenue neutral" and not impact property taxes — far more difficult to reach.
"I want people to be able to sit down and see what the impact of this is going to be." Kelly said. "I want these guys to do the responsible thing and build something that fits in the community."
Safe to say that pretty much everyone in Haddonfield would agree on that one.
Figuring out how best to get there is the issue.
But LaProcido's concept strikes me as having real possibilities.
With due diligence and a few tweaks and some political and civic leadership, his concept may be able to satisfy the competing constituencies involved — those who view the Bancroft site as a revenue-generator, a new community, a priceless piece of scenic and historical ground, or the biggest, best and last prime development site in the built-out borough.
Or all of the above.