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Vol. LXII, No. 16
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
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Senior Housing Concerns Thwart Merwick Proposal

Matthew Hersh

Following concerns over the need for increased senior housing, and worries over the use of Princeton HealthCare System’s Merwick Care Center site in the immediate future, Borough Council last Tuesday killed the proposed establishment of mixed-use zoning on the Merwick site on Bayard Lane in the Borough, and on the nearby YM/WCA and Stanworth sites.

The entire area, covering roughly 30 acres, represents some of the last undeveloped land in downtown Princeton. Borough Council last examined proposed zoning there in October. The rejection of the proposed zoning is the latest chapter in a four-year process whereby Princeton HealthCare System, the corporate parent of Merwick and University Medical Center at Princeton, plans to sell both sites for the purpose of developing a new campus on roughly 50 acres in Plainsboro.

Princeton University, the contract purchaser of the nine-acre Merwick site and owner of Stanworth housing tract, has indicated that it would turn Merwick into graduate and faculty housing. But calls for senior housing dominated the discussion last week, and although Council offered a tacit rejection in October of senior housing on the Merwick site, suggesting that the market would place middle income residents in the planned housing units on the University Medical Center at Princeton site once the hospital relocates, Council thwarted the zoning plan, which had been expected to pass.The failure of the zoning proposal, by a 3-2 vote, does not appear to have seriously threatened the sale of the Merwick property, but it was considered something of a setback for Princeton HealthCare System, Princeton University, and proponents of the zone, which would allow for a combination of housing types and uses.

“If you want to provide for seniors, then I suggest you proceed with this ordinance,” said Marvin Reed, a former Princeton Borough mayor who chairs the Regional Planning Board of Princeton’s Master Plan Subcommittee. Mr. Reed suggested that if Council were to push for senior housing, it could be done through overlay zones, and density bonuses for developers.

Planning Director Lee Solow appeared to indicate that Merwick would not be the right place for senior housing, saying that it would be “easy” to change the zoning at the hospital’s Witherspoon campus to allow for senior housing, adding that the current hospital is an elevator building with a parking garage. “It would be better than Merwick,” he said.

But Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad, who, along with Councilman Roger Martindell and Councilman Kevin Wilkes, voted against the measure, said that the Merwick site would be “perfect” for senior housing, while voicing concern that even though Princeton University is slated to purchase the Merwick site, it is not included in the recently released Princeton University campus plan. “I’m perplexed that Princeton University has not outlined this."

Mike McKay, the University’s vice president of Facilities, confirmed that there were not “specific” immediate plans for developing Merwick, but that the University would maintain and secure the site in the interim. He added that the University has been “clear that we are going to develop housing for faculty and staff."

Councilman Andrew Koontz and Council President Peggy Karcher voted in favor of the proposed zoning; Mayor Mildred Trotman has recused herself from the hearings because her son works for Princeton House, a division of Princeton HealthCare System. Councilman David Goldfarb recused himself because he works for the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP, as does Richard Goldman, who is an attorney representing the University for the Merwick project.

Council could examine a revised zoning ordinance in the coming months.

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