Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 33
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
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Architect Eyes Senior Housing Revival

Matthew Hersh

A Princeton-area architect made a formal pitch Monday night at Township Hall intended to rescue a decade-long campaign to construct market-rate senior housing within the Township's municipal borders.

The move followed last year's pullout of a major builder slated to develop along a Bunn Drive parcel, and by new questions stemming from the status of another developer that recently received approval to build along Mt. Lucas Road.

The architect, J. Robert Hillier, the founder of the Hillier Architecture, which recently merged with the UK-based design firm RMJM to form RMJMHillier, appeared before the Township Committee to introduce a concept that would develop a portion of the 20-acre Bunn Drive site that was to be home to developer K. Hovnanian's 140-unit Four Seasons village. Hovnanian backed out of that project last year, citing a number of obstacles, including difficulties in the senior housing market and disagreements over the purchase price of the land, currently owned by Laura and William Lowe of Short Hills.

Mr. Hillier's proposal, which he said is unaffiliated with his West Windsor-based firm, asked Township Committee to reconsider the zoning in that area, part of the Township's Senior Housing Overlay zone that was established in 2001 after years of litigation and political maneuvering. The area, which is zoned to accommodate the type of denser, village-style development found in senior housing complexes, requires that residents would have to be 62 years of age and up.

That age restriction, Mr. Hillier said, could be retooled as a 55-and-up zone, thus opening the market and still creating a place where Princeton residents looking to downsize could relocate.

"There's no place in Princeton for someone to downsize and still live here. It seems to me that we would be meeting a need with this," Mr. Hillier said, outlining the estimated $60 to $70 million project that would produce units falling in the $400,000 range. The project, which Mr. Hillier described as having the look of an "Italian hilltown," would not be affiliated with RMJMHillier: "This is my money, my project."

The Township set the 62-and-over age restriction based on federal housing guidelines that would allow no residents under the age of 62 to live in units under that designation — that includes younger spouses, children, and caretakers. Township officials have often cited the age 62 requirement as a necessary guideline to forestall a more general population from moving into age-55-and-over housing.

Under the previous municipal interpretations of the Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995, only one resident living in this type of housing would have to be 55 or over. Township attorney Edwin Schmierer said that reading could be reexamined. The Act states that "at least 80 percent of the occupied units are occupied by at least one person who is 55 years of age or older."

Mr. Hillier said that rule could be read as 80 percent of the units could be 55 and up, while the remaining 20 percent could be available to the rest of the housing market. "The 80 percent rule is probably designed to allow flexibility, but the literal reading is that 20 percent could be marketed to under 55, limiting what you can do with the other 80 percent," said Mr. Hillier, a shareholder of Town Topics, Inc.

However, Mr. Hillier's concept proposed the entire development be 55 and over, for all residents living in the units: "This is all about senior housing, and there is a need for senior housing here." The 55-and-over designation would not only widen the marketability of the housing, but would also be more attractive for banks financing the project, he said.

Mr. Hillier's concept, which did not involve specific site plan detail, used about seven of the site's 20 acres, clustering much of the development in the northwest corner near Hilltop Park.

The entire project would also feature sod roofs. Mr. Hillier's firm, a founding member of the New Jersey chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, currently has six sod roof projects underway. "There is great economy in modern sod roofs and a lot of benefits in terms of extending the life of the underlying roof," Mr. Hillier told Town Topics in a separate e-mail message.

Members of Township Committee appeared warm to the idea of reconsidering the age restriction there, with a general consensus that Mr. Hillier's presentation should be developed in a more public setting. Any draft zoning alterations would need to be publicly considered by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton before going back to Township Committee for another public hearing. "This is the kind of project that the Princetons need," said Township Committeewoman Vicky Bergman, adding that she was "encouraged" that the federal guidelines appear to be more flexible than once thought.

Princeton planning director Lee Solow said there would likely be no changes required to the Princeton Community Master Plan, adding that the age requirement was more of a policy choice taken at the recommendation of the Planning Board. He did warn members of Committee, however, that Mr. Hillier's presentation did not necessarily reflect a real site plan that would be proposed at some point in the future. "This is a lovely picture, but if you make a change, there's no guarantee that this is what you're going to get."

However, Mr. Hillier told Town Topics that he would be both the purchaser and the developer of the land. Additionally, his purchase agreement with the Lowes would be contingent on the Township's amending the 62-and-over age restriction.

Monday's hearing also raised questions over the status of a current 62-and-over senior housing project slated for a 28-acre expanse off Mt. Lucas Road, just north of Redding Circle. That project, developed by Princeton Senior Townhomes, LLC, received approve from the Planning Board in May to build 49 units on the site. That tract also falls within the Township's Senior Overlay zone.

However, when asked of the project's status, Township officials acknowledged that Ned White of Greenwich, Conn., the principal of the intended developer, had been unavailable to Township overture.

Neither Mr. White, nor Mark Solomon, who served as attorney for Princeton Senior Townhomes during the proposed development's approval process, immediately returned phone calls Tuesday questioning the project's status.

Princeton Township Committee could revisit Mr. Hillier's housing proposal and consequent zoning change request as early as September.

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