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Hospital Will Disclose Future Site By Mid-May, PHCS President Says

Matthew Hersh

After months of speculation, the University Medical Center at Princeton should have a future site named by mid-May, according to Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) President and CEO Barry Rabner.

That announcement, made Thursday at a discussion session held by the Princeton Regional Planning Board aimed at exploring future uses for the 12-acre Witherspoon Street hospital campus site, comes after a multi-year process of addressing the hospital's future needs.

Mr. Rabner said that the site chosen will be selected from among five sites being considered for the construction of a 300-bed facility within two and six miles of its current site.

"What's important to the community is that we recognize our mission to serve people regardless of their ability to access care or pay for it," Mr. Rabner said at the Planning Board hearing, in response to resident questions.

One site that has been mentioned by those unaffiliated with the hospital is the tract of land between Canal Pointe Boulevard and Route 1 South. At a West Windsor Township Council meeting Monday night, that scenario was disputed by residents opposed to the hospital relocating there. However, neither hospital trustees nor the West Windsor Township Council have been involved in any open or closed session discussions about the hospital's relocation efforts, according to Council member Kristin Appelget.

"[The residents] are opposing what they think is one of the sites the hospital is looking at, which is adjacent to Canal Pointe," she said, adding that the residents are responding to speculation rather than tangible proposals. "What we've reiterated to them is that, at this point, there's not a plan on the table nor has there been a formal acknowledgment by the hospital that that's the site they want to go to."

"The process hasn't even begun," she added.

But it has begun in Princeton Borough and Township, where it is more or less certain that no matter where the hospital moves, it will be leaving 12 acres of land in its wake.

The Planning Board's current exploration of possible uses for the land will eventually lead to a Princeton Community Master Plan amendment stipulating that changes in zoning be in accordance with future development. At the moment, the bulk of the site is zoned only for hospital use.

A task force composed of municipal zoning, planning, health, and elected officials released a report in February stating that if the hospital were to leave, the establishment of a residential area should fall in line with the surrounding neighborhood. Possible residential scenarios included townhouses, duplexes, and apartments; a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), which would include independent living, assisted living, and nursing home care; institutional use such as dormitories, or faculty housing; or a mixed-use situation that would include residential housing, offices, retail, parking, and open space.

The Planning Board hearing concentrated on the hospital's main campus site, not the nine-acre Merwick Rehab site between John Street and Bayard Lane. Hospital representatives have said that the Merwick site would be put up for sale regardless of whether the UMCP stays in Princeton or moves elsewhere.

"No matter what happens, Merwick will be sold," said Marvin Reed, Planning Board member and chairman of the aforementioned task force. That issue, Mr. Reed added, will be addressed at a subsequent meeting.

"Our goal here, in looking at the Master Plan and the zoning ordinance, is to try to give some parameters to what would be desirable redevelopment of the site," he said, adding that those parameters should be put into place before potential developers come in with proposals.

The Planning Board first needs to look at the existing buildings on-site to determine what is "in good shape," that is, what buildings could serve other uses; what is re-usable, but in need of renovation; and what is in poor condition and should be considered for demolition.

Mr. Reed also suggested that an area of mixed residential styles along with a variety of prices that reflect "the kind of diversity that we have in town" should be considered on-site.

Board member Bill Enslin said he would like to see "compatible development" that would take into account more than one usage at the current hospital site. Gail Ullman, Borough vice-chair of the Planning Board, said that the whole area should be analyzed before zoning amendments are applied to specific parts.

Board member Wendy Benchley agreed, calling for a more "holistic" approach to re-zoning the site: "What are we looking for? We have to settle that question first."

Carnahan Place resident Angelo Perna suggested that the Planning Board receive the input of potential developers "to get a better perspective" on the development possibilities of the land.

Flora Davis, an Erdman Avenue resident, urged the Planning Board to explore senior housing possibilities. "We have been exiling our seniors for years," she said, while adding that any senior housing should be "something we can afford."

Westcott Road resident Helmut Schwab said he would like to see "some sort" of medical care facility in town, depending on how far the hospital were to move. "We don't know how far the hospital is going to move: if it moves six miles, then I think it's urgent to keep some doctors and clinics right where we are; if it moves only a mile, then I think it's less urgent."

According to Mr. Rabner, the question of mileage should soon be answered.

The Planning Board will hold a second hearing on zoning amendments for the hospital site on May 26 at Township Hall at 7:30 p.m. The hospital will host a community meeting on future hospital site uses this Tuesday, May 3 at 7:30 in Conference Room A on the hospital's ground floor.


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