A Jersey City developer who specializes in restoring historic buildings hopes to buy the opulent but shuttered Elkins Estate in Cheltenham and spend up to $20 million for renovations.
Landmark Developers will pay $6 million for the 42-acre estate and plans to restore six buildings, company president Frank Cretella said. Development plans haven't been finalized for the estate, but some of the ideas under consideration include converting the stables to a distillery, installing a heliport, and adding, possibly, a spa, 110-room boutique hotel, luxury restaurant, recording studio, pool, and bocce ball court.
And for the first time — at least in recent history — the Elkins Estate will be taxed because of revised township zoning laws.
Cheltenham is historically a community almost entirely made up of residential homes and little commercial development. The zoning laws were rewritten and approved late last year to require nonresidential properties, which would include the mixed-use Elkins Estate, to pay municipal taxes. The estate is currently owned by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci, who left the site several years ago.
"At the moment, it contributes zero [dollars]," Brad Pransky, commissioner of Ward Three in Cheltenham, said of the Elkins Estate's tax situation. "If they contributed a dollar, it'd be a dollar more than we have. The total numbers I don't have yet. It's nothing I would even guess at. But it's going to be substantive, it's going to be worthwhile, and it's going to build over time."
During a recent community meeting hosted by Landmark at the Elstowe Manor on the Elkins Estate, the developers unveiled proposed renovations for the estate and lauded what they predicted would be a revitalization for the property. Scott Grogan, Landmark's chief financial officer, said his company could spend $20 million for the renovations.
Pointing to a large map spread out on a table in the lobby of Elstowe Manor, Grogan guided his finger over each of the buildings on the Elkins Estate that Landmark wants to preserve and renovate: Elstowe Manor, Chelten House, a child's playhouse known as the "casino," former stables, a caretaker's cottage, and the "power plant" building that would hold generators but also provide a lounge area for estate visitors.
But some of the 250 Cheltenham residents who attended the meeting were skeptical of success.
In 2009, the nonprofit Land Conservancy of Elkins Park bought the estate from the Dominican Sisters, who had owned the land for about eight decades. The conservancy intended to use the estate as a spiritual wellness center and events venue. Those plans crumbled when the conservancy defaulted on mortgage payments, Pransky said, and the Dominican Sisters took back the estate.
"The question is, why is it going to work this time?" said Sanna Levine, 61, who has lived in Cheltenham for 10 years.
Levine wasn't sold on Landmark's proposal.
"I looked at the map and was deeply skeptical," she said.
Daniel George has lived in Cheltenham for 34 years and seen waves of buzz about plans for the estate, whose most recognizable structure is Elstowe Manor, rising dramatically from a long driveway off Ashbourne Road.
George said he's generally optimistic about the plan but retains some skepticism.
The Elkins Estate has never captured the attention of anyone like it's caught Landmark's, he said, and Landmark has "the backing to make something happen."
"It's scary to turn a nonprofit land and historic house and turn it over to developers, but the house needs restoration," said Marita Poxon, 70, of Philadelphia. "It needs some use in today's world. And this is a use. And it makes sense to me."
Landmark has a successful history of renovating historic properties, said Cretella. The company touts Logan Inn, a historic lodging in New Hope, as one of its success stories.
Landmark expects to close on the property in November, Grogan said, and estimated that renovations would take between 16 months to two years. Grogan said work would likely begin first on Elstowe Manor.
Others who attended the community forum were concerned that the development plans would bring increased traffic to the neighborhood around the Elkins Estate.
Pransky, commissioner of Ward Three, said he anticipated that traffic concerns would be the extent of Cheltenham residents' complaints about the plan for the Elkins Estate, saying the parcel was "going to be a real benefit for everybody."