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Planners Zone In On Hospital Site

Matthew Hersh

Municipal planners moved one step closer Tuesday to amending the Princeton Community Master Plan to enable development on the Witherspoon campus of the University Medical Center at Princeton. Providing the hospital is successful in relocating, the development will likely result in a combination of housing, retail, and office use.

And while Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS), the parent entity of the hospital, has not yet announced where it will house its proposed 50-acre, $350 million new facilities, the Master Plan Subcommittee of the Regional Planning Board is moving forward, albeit slowly, with establishing the zoning parameters for the future use of the hospital's current nine-acre campus.

Nothing was finalized Tuesday, as planners carried the discussion to September. No exact date, however, has been determined.

But what was sought at yesterday's meeting was a consensus for use, density, street configuration, parking, and affordable housing requirements for any redevelopment of the site; to accomplish this, the zoning for the site, which straddles the Township/Borough line, needs to be changed to a mixed commercial/residential from the current status zoned largely for hospital use.

A consideration that seems to have the endorsement of several members of the Planning Board is that there needs to be a certain amount of density to achieve goals such as senior housing ‹ a concept that has not been endorsed, but one that has been put forth in architect J. Robert Hillier's proposal for 280-units, including a public park and some commercial spaces. PHCS employed Mr. Hillier, a minority owner of Town Topics, to put together plans indicating what kind of zoning would be attractive to prospective developers.

The draft parameters issued by the Master Plan Subcommittee Tuesday said that usage should be "primarily" residential but with an aim toward allowing other uses for offices, retail, and restaurants. But that retail, the draft goes on to say, should be limited to the first floor facing Witherspoon Street or the aforementioned park. The draft recommended that the level of commercial use on site be capped at six percent.

Other tentative agreements within the board are that Harris Road homes currently owned by the hospital should remain as private residences; that the PHCS surgi-center should continue to provide an office function while the parking garage should continue to provide parking for the redeveloped area; and that the current zoning for hospital use should remain in place until UMCP can relocate.

The hospital-owned surface parking lot on Franklin Avenue should also remain in the Borough's R-4 zone of relatively high density. The R-4 zone includes the nearby John-Witherspoon neighborhood. The Princeton Cemetery, which lies immediately to the south of the Franklin lot, is also zoned R-4, opening the possibility that the Nassau Presbyterian Church might acquire that land to expand the cemetery. The hospital had outlined several plans to develop that area to provide for 23 townhouses, flats, or duplexes.

Both the Borough and Township are assuming that any development at the hospital site will provide much-needed affordable housing in the community. As such, it was recommended that any rezoning of the site should include a twenty percent affordable housing requirement ‹ a mandate in-line with the Council on Affordable Housing's requirements.

Additionally, Marvin Reed, Planning Board member and chairman of the Master Plan Subcommittee, said there is "less and less" interest in transferring any affordable housing units to area municipalities, like Trenton.

"Each development, particularly where we have major development of considerable acreage, is expected to at least provide for the amount of affordable housing to which they are obligated to the municipality," he said, adding that much of the affordable housing required for the redevelopment of the UMCP site, should be kept on site.

There was some discussion as to whether a Continued Care Retirement Community (CCRC) was the best use for the site. "My feeling is that five years from now, a CCRC might be a discredited idea," said Borough Mayor Joe O'Neill, citing a preference to "not refer to that particular construct" in the zoning parameters. A CCRC, he added, would require the use of the entire site because of the infrastructure needed to support such a complex. Mr. Hillier added that out of 38 proposals from prospective developers of the site, not one was in the form of a CCRC.

"You would need the whole site for it to be a CCRC, because you need health critical mass for it to work," he said.

While the Master Plan Subcommittee members were unable to determine a date to revisit street configuration, open space, and parking issues, several residents in attendance urged that an evening hearing be scheduled, so more residents could offer their input.


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