Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on Maybrook, also known as the Merriam Estate (the first was published on May 11, 2011). We invite you to share your wisdom and anecdotes about Maybrook with us by dropping a note via email, or sharing in the comment box below.
LEGAL FIGHTS OVER land development and historic preservation, like history itself, have a habit of repeating themselves.
In the early 1950s, prominent land developer John W. Merriam fought a 10-year legal battle to build the Thomas Wynne Apartments on a section of land then referred to as the Gibson tract, home of Maybrook, a sprawling Gothic mansion built in 1881. The litigation was based on zoning issues that seemed to be changing even as Merriam was developing and applying for permits, and the property owner claimed that his legal fees ran as high as $90,000, with a loss of $1 million of income due to the suit.
Merriam won that battle, and the apartments were built.
Merriam died in 1994, and by 1998, his second wife, Elizabeth C. L. Merriam, officially held the deed to Maybrook. In November 2000, several months before her passing, Mrs. Merriam transferred the property to a development firm led by her son, Robert Lockyer.
Lockyer’s Merloc Partners planned to develop part of the property. There would be a 280-unit, high-end apartment complex. The Scottish-influenced Gothic castle that is the heart of the property would remain intact. It would be called The Reserve at Maybrook.
The key word: "would." Because more than a decade later, that's pretty much where things remain.
'A Very Important Property'
IN 2002, LIZ ROGAN, currently the president of the Lower Merion Township Board of Commissioners, was the township’s Director of Planning and Community Development and became involved with the negotiations between Merloc and the community.
“We [township staff] knew it would be very controversial, because it is a very important property,” recalled Rogan. “It’s one of the biggest undeveloped properties ... a huge historic resource. What I recommended to the township manager at that time was that we try and do a mediated process.”
Rogan and the township, including its own Environmental Advisory Council, approached several civic associations, environmental groups, and the borough of Narberth (which was fighting the development’s plans for traffic flow).
“There was a very diverse group of people who met for over a year to try and come to a mediated development solution,” Rogan said. “I actually think we came up with that solution, and that is what got taken through the process and approved by the board at that time.”
Cheryl Gelber, also a current commissioner, represented the Wynnewood Civic Association at the time. She too felt confident there was agreement on a plan by all involved. The approved development preserved a lot of open space for the community, with trails that would allow residents of Narberth and Lower Merion Township to safely walk between business districts.
Narberth was “starting to rev up to renovate,” Gelber said. “They would have an additional 200-odd [residents] that could easily walk to the Narberth Library, Narberth playground, the Narberth business community, and that would have been positive for Narberth also.”
AROUND THE TIME THAT Lower Merion Township was approving Merloc’s plans, Narberth passed an ordinance limiting the traffic flow, directly affecting the development. The access way for the Thomas Wynne Apartments, currently owned by Merloc, is on the Narberth side along N. Wynnewood Road, Rogan said. The addition of more than 200 apartments would violate the new ordinance. The committee went back to the drawing board.
The new plan put access gates at each end of the development. Thomas Wynne residents would continue to use the existing access route, while the new residence would use access gates on Penn Road (in Wynnewood, at the train station). Each group involved brought in their own traffic engineer to ensure traffic would be equally distributed, and there was a provision that the access roads would not be open to the general public.
But the excess traffic was apparently just the tip of the iceberg.
Gelber thinks Narberth may have felt they were getting the burden of the project instead of the benefits in terms of tax revenue. Rogan also noted that along with the excess traffic, their side of the development was to be used for loading and trash delivery. In the end, Narberth took the township to court five times over ordinance and zoning violations, along with other issues of traffic safety.
“Their attorney was very creative and [he] was a special zoning solicitor at the time,” Gelber said, referring to Marc Jonas. “He tried every way possible to stop this project.” Gelber and Rogan said that every case was won in favor of Lower Merion Township.
Completely surrounded by Lower Merion Township, Narberth is part of Lower Merion School District and partners on certain public services (police, fire, ambulance servcies). But it is nonetheless an independent borough, not a part of the township proper.
Narberth Borough Manager Bill Martin maintains that the only open issue with the development of the Merriam estate is the driveway, explaining that since the property is in Lower Merion Township, there hasn't been much that Narberth could be involved with.
“That has always been our big issue,” agreed Narberth Borough Council President Mary Jo Daley. “We respect the fact that it’s in a different municipality, and we’ve lived with the Thomas Wynne [apartments]. And a lot of those folks consider themselves to be Narberth people—they use the playground the library and things like that.”
All of N. Wynnewood Road—that is, both sides of the street, northbound and southbound—is generally accepted among all parties as part of Narberth, Daley said. In some areas, such as along City Avenue, the official dividing line between Philadelphia and suburban communities is considered to be the double-yellow traffic lines. Here, the road is under Narberth’s care and control, Daley said, just as all of Montgomery Avenue, where it borders Narberth, is under the jurisdiction of the township.
For Him The Tolls Might Still Work
LOCKYER HAS HAD HIS OWN legal issues with Narberth. The majority of the cases between Merloc and the borough have been settled out of court, according to Montgomery County Court records, but there is at least one appeal still pending.
But the decade-long dispute may have been a blessing in disguise for Lockyer and his eventual partners, the publicly traded homebuilder Toll Brothers. After the storm of lawsuits, the bottom fell out of the U.S. housing market, making it nearly impossible to finance any kind of new development, even within the relatively safe multifamily sector of commercial real estate—and even in a relatively wealthy suburb with a proven demand for high-end apartments.
After Toll Brothers came into the picture in 2006 (which turned out to be the peeak of the national real estate bubble), there was talk of changing the plan from apartments to condominiums. It was also thought that Toll might purchase the property outright, but according to Rogan—who has spoken with Lockyer recently—nothing is currently in the works.
In Sepetember 2007, Lockyer released a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer in response to a detailed article about Maybrook and its legal skirmishes, “Main Line’s fabled castle up in the air.” The statement discussed his desire to combine his development with the historic preservation of the property.
But much like Merriam himself in the ’50s, Lockyer said legal costs have railroaded the project.
“Thanks to protracted litigation costs, Merloc Partners can no longer support its preservation interests and those of the community—the buildings and grounds...,” Lockyer wrote, adding that he was confident the Toll plan would help complete his vision.
Lockyer, who initiated a lawsuit himself by suing Narberth over the driveway ordinance, did not respond to several attempts to reach him for comment on this article.
“I don’t have any idea as to when this project will come to fruition,” said Marc Brookman, a Center City real estate attorney who represents Lockyer. He declined to comment on his client’s current thoughts on the project. Brookman did confirm that at least one lawsuit between Lockyer and Narberth remains in play.
Rogan says that residents can be assured that Lockyer is doing all he can to preserve one of the last privately owned historic mansions on the Main Line. She has been lucky enough to see the inside of the castle herself, while the rest of the community can only catch a glimpse of from the train station. Gates, walls and security cameras surround the perimeter of the property, with plenty of warning signs that trespassers will be prosecuted.
WITHIN, THE GRAND OLD PLACE is “remarkable,” Rogan said. Some of the original furniture and artwork have been sold to maintain the property, she said, but it is still standing tall.
Daley, too, has a sense of wonderment about the property. As a child she used to ice skate with other Narberth kids on the estate’s duck pond, just off N. Wynnewood Road near the apartments.
“It’s a beautiful, kind of quiet property,” Daley said. As for the present day, “it just hasn’t really been a topic, because there’s just nothing going on as far as we know. We’re in a wait-and-see kind of situation.”
The Toll Brothers plan would allow for the community to have more involvement with the castle on the property, Gelber said. Her Civic Association constituents have some creative ideas to help maintain the manor, such as a bed and breakfast, a performance space, or a forum for use by the area’s many arts organizations.
For now, development plans remain at a standstill. Though there has been some recent thawing of the credit markets for real estate development, the housing market in general is still mired in uncertainty. Combined with continuing litigation, Merloc will not be breaking ground any day soon.
“It was a great plan, it was very creative, it was well thought out, and I even think that Toll’s concepts were good as well,” Rogan said.
“What happened, happened. It’s just too bad.”