Following an intense three-day session studying the nine-acre Bayard Lane tract that houses the Merwick Care Center, one thing is clear: improvement is needed and any new development should bridge surrounding neighborhoods.
How that happens, however, is yet to be seen.
On Sunday at Princeton Borough Hall, eight presentations were offered by area architectural firms attempting to envision various redevelopment plans once Princeton HealthCare System, the parent company to both Merwick and the University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP), relocates to the FMC Corporation site in Plainsboro. Architects looked at areas surrounding the Merwick site, including Princeton University's 154-unit Stanworth Apartments to the north and the YM/YWCA site to the south, trying to find a way that would enable new development on the site, while improving pedestrian and vehicular mobility in and around the area.
The study, sponsored by Princeton Future, precedes a formal April 20 hearing by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton at which Merwick will again be the center of discussion. In the meantime, however, architects have begun to put forth their own ideas. Princeton Future collaborators have said the aim is to assist the Planning Board with the process of rewriting the Princeton Community Master Plan, which would lead to eventual changes at the Merwick site, including zoning to accommodate any future development.
Presentations ranged from more specific designs to simply troubleshooting and pointing out what could be improved. Designs included those by Chris Knigge, assistant Borough Engineer; Richardson Smith Architects; Gittings Associates; architect Dan Rew; Outerbridge Morgan Associates; HACBM Architects; Francis Treves Architects; and Heidi Fichtenbaum of Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects and Charlotte Bialek, of the Princeton Regional Board of Education, both of whom presented independently of their respective professions.
Ideas raised during the session were the possible extension of Chambers Street north through the current Y playing fields; a "land swap" between a portion of the Y and Merwick; and an economical use of the Stanworth property one that several architects said could be developed in more of a smart growth fashion.
Princeton University, which is the contract purchaser of the Merwick property, has expressed an interest in redeveloping the entire Merwick/Stanworth site, but has not put forth any concepts or proposals. University representatives have indicated that new development is at least five years off and that any building would be dictated by changes in zoning.
In addition to encouraging a Chambers extension, Mr. Knigge's plan included a parking garage built into the center of the Merwick site, a small amount of retail along Paul Robeson Place, and a plaza abutting John Street. His plan also included a new pedestrian connection into Stanworth.
Jesse Pederson, representing Richardson/Smith, did not propose a specific site plan, but expressed a hope that the University would acquire the Merwick site, and that Master Plan and zoning changes should encourage the University and the town working together on future development.
"We should have a unique and flexible pattern of zoning; an intelligent plan to zoning and design," Mr. Pederson said, echoing Mr. Knigge's model that a land swap should be considered between the Y and the Merwick property.
However, Mr. Pederson said the Master Plan should not promote street connections to surrounding neighborhoods and that the emphasis should be on biking and walking connectors.
Ms. Fichtenbaum picked the popular land-swap idea that would exchange some of the Y's site to bring a new street in to the west of John Street, and develop that street with housing similar to that of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood. She also promoted the "boulevard" approach to Route 206: "Rather than having a race strip, we should allow people to weave through the site, and work their way around surrounding neighborhoods."
Ms. Fichtenbaum's plan would also save the Y's Bramwell House and would place structured parking at the Y, getting rid of the surface lot, which would allow for a greater density, she said.
Ms. Fichtenbaum held off on a design proposal for Merwick, saying "it would be pushing the envelope a little too hard," but added that the space as it currently stands, "is not well used."
Conversely, Bill Gittings of Gitting Associates focused heavily on the Stanworth site, arguing that providing affordable homes "is really crucial, but the way it's designed, it's an enclave, and an odd mixture of one-story pieces and two-story pieces."
Mr. Gittings also addressed the so-called Merwick Woods to the east of Merwick, saying that a good portion of the brush could be cleared, but that an existing row of Sycamore trees should remain.
Dan Rew, of CUH2A, looked at vehicular flow, and encouraged the idea of a throughway running from downtown toward Community Park, adding that resulting development would be in line with the surrounding neighborhoods.
Peter Morgan, of Outerbridge Morgan, cited the redevelopment of London after the Great Fire of 1666, particularly that of Bedford Square, creating a "permeability through the site of what is private and public." He also proposed structured public parking off Paul Robeson, servicing the neighborhoods and the Y.
Mr. Morgan also supported the idea of running a connector street from Stanworth to Leigh Avenue.
Perhaps the most surprising presentation was from Dr. Ahmed Azmy, of HACBM architecture, who encouraged the University to purchase the Merwick land but then donate it to the municipality. "It could be a marvelous thing," he said.
Nearly all of the presenters supported the idea of preserving the original Merwick Mansion to serve as either a community center or to be split into tenements.
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