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The Demolition of An Old Church: Smerconish's Bad Intentions Leave a Bad Taste

Wally Smerconish is under contract to buy the First Baptist Church in Ardmore, and wants to knock it down.

Editor's note: This blog, written by Kate Galer, is in response to the news that .  Kate is a blogger on Ardmore-Merion-Wynnewood Patch. Anyone who lives or works in the Ardmore, Merion, Wynnewood area is welcome to blog on Patch. For more information, email editor Amanda Mahnke at ardmore@patch.com, or visit our blogging page and click "Post on Patch."

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Well, Mr. Smerconish, you have done a good job of sounding like a threatening bully to the people who actually care about preserving the character of our little pocket of the world.  

By to demolish - a  beautiful, 90 year old, stone structure that fits perfectly on the corner of St. Paul's and Athens in Ardmore - you place the blame for your bad decisions on the government. Perhaps before going under contract to purchase the property you should have had your "people" (isn't your lawyer former Commissioner Lance Rogers?) let you know that conversion to a multi-family dwelling wouldn't be a permissible use under the current zoning.   

You have now helped further the "stereotype" of developer.  Is it no wonder we all get our back up when someone comes in from somewhere else and wants to fundamentally change the way our neighborhood looks?  

Just a few, short years ago a developer wanted to build four houses on a one-acre parking lot within spitting distance of the Baptist Church.  That developer ended up making a cool million when he sold it to the Township, who bought it with already designated open space funds and neighborhood fundraising efforts, to build .

While there is certainly no expectation of the Township stepping in on the Baptist purchase, there is an expectation by the neighborhood for the devolper to uphold the character of Ardmore.

When people move to Ardmore or choose to stay after being brought up here, they enter into a tacit agreement with their neighbors that we like living in houses like this, with people like this, with a streetscape like this.  We can always improve things a bit by planting some more trees or fixing up our house a little, but it is generally OK by us. Some of the way we feel about Ardmore is intangible and hard to define and conflicted, but it seems to be a collective way of feeling.

Demolishing a building that has been a part of our neighborhood for longer than most of us have been alive is just plain wrong.  The Baptist Church isn't technically classified as an historic building, but it also isn't falling down, an eyesore (quite the opposite!) or hazardous.  It is a big, old stone building with interesting little features, the type of building that doesn't get built anymore. And it is eligible to be on the Historic Inventory, which is probably where it should've been before all this started.

I just wish Mr. Smerconish hadn't alienated the neighbors by applying for a demolition permit because there might be some relief in Township ordinances and codes coming soon.

There is an amendment to an ordinance that has been in the works and is being proposed by the Lower Merion Township Building and Planning Department.  The amendment specifically addresses the conversion of religious institutions and clubs or lodges to permissible multi-family dwellings.  

As you can imagine, there seems to be an epidemic of traditional Christian churches losing congregations and therefore not able to support the properties they have owned for many years.  The Township is trying to adapt as fast as they can, the wheels of government being sometimes slow, and address this issue.

The First Baptist Church could be the first property to use this ordinance for adaptive and agreeable reuse.  I am not even going to broach the environmental aspect of adaptive reuse. Suffice it to say both the environmental and the preservationist communities concur that the most environmentally sound building is one that is already there.

The amendment to the ordinance will be discussed this evening at the Building and Planning meeting of the Board of Commissioners. I won't bore you with the gory details, but it seems like a positive amendment that will protect both the neighborhoods the structures are located in and the buyer of the property. Balance. 

You can read it here - item #6. (Editor's note: A PDF of the ordinance and related documents is also available here.)

In the meantime, the residents of Ardmore need to do a few things to stop Smerconish from being able to turn to rubble a part of our neighborhood.  

Contact both Commissioner Dellheim (jane.dellheim@gmail.com) and Commissioner Lindner  (sklindner@mail.com) and make your opinion known. Let them know we need their help!  

Contact Wally Smerconish and/or his lawyer, Lance Rogers, and let them know this is not an okay way to deal with our neighborhood (sneaky and underhanded!).  Contact Duffy Realty (610-667-6655) in Narberth, who is representing the sellers, and have them convey a message to the sellers that they should not be selling to a buyer with bad intentions.

Use our Civics - ArdWood and Ardmore Progressive - to let everyone know we want to keep the Baptist Church standing and converted to a mutually accepted use.

Property owners have certain legal rights to do what they want with their own property and that is good - most of us want the government out of our houses -  but we also have ethical obligations to be good neighbors.

If Smerconish doesn't want to be that good neighbor, he doesn't need to be in Ardmore.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Amanda Mahnke (Editor) July 10, 2012 at 12:40 PM
There is an ArdWood Civic Association meeting tonight, Tuesday, at 7:15 at Household of Faith Deliverance Church (right down the block from First Baptist): http://ardmore.patch.com/events/ardwood-civic-association-meeting
Julie Sokoloff July 10, 2012 at 12:46 PM
I can't agree with you more about preserving the integrity of our neighborhood - let's hope we can get the township to deny the demolition permit application until the new ordinance for conversion use can be passed! Kate is right that they don't erect buildings like this anymore and once it's gone, it's gone. The thought of looking at yet another vinyl-sided and stucco house sickens me. Living in a converted 1895 carriage house myself a block away from the church, I know what possibilities can grow out of this space and we hope that caring, smarter heads will prevail to save this beautiful building.
Carla Zambelli July 10, 2012 at 01:08 PM
The editor's note should also read that the author probably can't write this without bias given her close, personal relationship with a member of LMT Staff. While I appreciate her passion, she is wrong. Not about saving the church, that is admirable. But by lambasting individuals who did not do anything wrong & came to Ardmore in good faith with a good plan. I am generally not one to defend developers (even if I know them, which in this case I have never denied), but the fact is the developer is as much a victim in this as is the surrounding neighborhood. Everyone is a victim of Lower Merion Township politics, a lack of municipal vision, bad planning,& outdated zoning. Lower Merion once again is being reactive instead of proactive & proposing a bit of band- aid zoning after the fact. It is not a one size fits all band-aid, which means it would not adapt easily all over Lower Merion Township. This band-aid could potentially affect many properties throughout Lower Merion & as Hugh Gordon, of North Ardmore Civic & The Federation of Civics simply and eleoquently stated "It needs careful consideration, not being rushed through on an emergency basis. It also has some provisions that very few property owners would be able to accept." Ms. Galer in a sense while being a driving force behind Linwood Park also ran roughshod enough over people as this was being planned that there still to this day exists a divisiveness over the park. She should stop doing that here.
Douglas Martindale July 10, 2012 at 01:50 PM
This article is fine, however, it just doesn't make any attempt to examine that there may be another side to this story. I do strongly feel that tearing down the church is a terrible idea and would be a most unfortunate loss of a historical building to the community. On the other hand, it's not my land and as much as I would like things done "my way", it's private property. I've always found it remarkable how much complaining goes on in Lower Merion on basically every project that is presented. Even more so, that if these properties were such "treasures", why aren't these naysayers finding ways to preserve them, raising capital to acquire the properties, and then finding their own solutions? With all the wealth in our township, why is no one even considering that as an option? That truly is a mystery to me! I really think the developer is behaving correctly based on the hand dealt to them by the township. There is obviously an inflexible zoning code, one that only permits a single family residence in this existing church is obviously flawed. What else are they to do? There really is no difference from them pulling a demo permit to get the commissioners to act than your call to us to contact them to make our opinion known.
Frances McComb July 11, 2012 at 01:59 PM
I think the personal comments about Ms. Galer's "bias" and "running roughshod" are unfair. If she has a personal relationship with a member of staff, what is the relevance? Isn't it possible it would make her more informed than the average person who may or may not understand the proposed ordinance? What does Linwood park have to do with this discussion? What real evidence of "divisivevness" exists other than she doesn't agree with the commentator (who I believe now lives outside the Township)? I have never met Ms. Galer. But from reading the Main Line Times, it seems to me she is the essence of self-less community activist who gives her time and energy to make Ardmore a better place to live. Why not stick to the substance and skip personal attacks which are clearly divisive, unkind, and unnecessary?
Carla Zambelli July 11, 2012 at 05:03 PM
Francis, Francie, Francie, you can never resist, can you? The comments about Kate Galer's natural bias are indeed fair. It is human nature to defend projects our loved ones are involved in. And yes, indeed, many in Ardmore did feel run rough shod over are far as Linwood Park, and Kate opened the door to discussing Linwood in her own blog post here. You perceive anything you don't agree with as a personal attack of some sort, it is all part of your M.O. It is the way you handle things. As for my comments, yes, thankfully I escaped Lower Merion, but having spent the majority of my life there, as well as the fact that even if you don't like it personally, I am still involved there. I also can indeed comment just as freely as anyone else, yourself included. When I lived in Lower Merion you at that point always had other reasons as to why I shouldn't be able to comment. You just don't like me, and that is just fine with me. However, Francie, it doesn't make me wrong to state flat out that I feel Kate Galer's is taking people to task who are not quite deserving of it. Glad to see you are still just you. I find that admirable in a weird way and always amusing. And at least this time you are criticizing me in your own name. Have a great day!
Regina Brown July 11, 2012 at 10:52 PM
I am uncomfortable with Wally Smerconich's actions to date because Wally's words and actions don't match. He waxed to the neighborhood about saving a beautiful building, yet has applied to demolish it before he even owns it. He said that six single houses could be built on the lot (making 5 condos including the parsonage look much better) yet only 3 max actually can. He said demolishing and yielding was financially unworkable so why didn't he make purchase contingent on zoning variance, why is he going forward without variance and why did he file for demo (and then we assume new construction)? Is it now feasable and what changed to make it so? He was told in a public meeting that variances for impervious surface could be given with historic preservation and that this was very important yet he refuses to agree to preserve even with variances? How does an experienced developer with an attorney who is a former Township Commissioner not know zoning laws, to make a purchase contingent on variance grant if the projectis otherwise "unfeasable", or how many houses really would fit on the lot in question? It looks to me like Wally really thought that he can make money either way - either condos or three nice sized single homes. Bonus, he can make the Township look bad for being "inflexible". I hope these concerns and incongruities can be addressed as they are very, very unsettling.
Regina Brown July 11, 2012 at 10:55 PM
"yielding" should be "building" darn auto correct. Sorry.
Regina Brown July 11, 2012 at 11:03 PM
Douglas - the thing is, he doesn't own the property yet and despite his protests otherwise, he doesn't "have" to complete the sale. There are others interested i purchasing and preserving the property, including a neighbor who wants to make it their personal residence. If Wally really does believe the building is worth saving rather than razing, he can step aside and let it be sold to someone else who will protect it. He doesn'thave to buy it, then raze it while wringing his hands about the big, bad Township.
Kate Galer July 14, 2012 at 12:15 PM
It's a blog, opinion. I am not a paid reporter for Patch. If you read the article Amanda posted before I even wrote my blog, you will gather the info I used to formulate my opinion. Or you can go on the LMT website to find info. The property shouldn't be demolished.
Carla Zambelli July 14, 2012 at 11:56 PM
Yes Kate, we know it is a blog and it is opinion and yes the church should be saved if possible. Yes I read the article and yes I am quite aware of what has been going on, it still doesn't mean that you do not have a certain bias that is only natural or are correct about everything. And if you and Regina know people interested in purchasing the property from Wally, who is the contract buyer, introduce them!
tinjay August 07, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Mr Smercornish has bought the building now it seems. I also think he is looking to rent out the building to those who would keep running it as a church. Just waiting to see how he would do it. We would be willing as a new parish to take it over at an acceptable running and rent cost. I don't think Smerconish would demolish that building.
Carla Zambelli August 08, 2012 at 12:07 PM
Tin jay, yes Wally now owns the building. He and I spoke the day of settlement. He is willing, yes, to rent the church. However, an "acceptable" rent cost would be up to him. If you have a plan, contact him.
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