In what proved to be a busy week for Mercer County-area health care services, Princeton HealthCare System, the parent company of the University Medical Center at Princeton, further loosened its physical Princeton ties as it began its three-mile trek to a 158-acre tract in Plainsboro.
PHCS representatives appeared before the Plainsboro Township Planning Board Monday to present a preview of a new facility that would not only house UMCP but also Merwick Care Center. Led by PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner and architectural consultant J. Robert Hillier, a case for the future of PHCS operations was presented that not only included the planned 269-bed hospital, and 180-bed Merwick center, but a list of other services as well.
At the same time, PHCS received approval for zoning changes on the Township portion of the current UMCP Witherspoon campus site, which would allow for commercial and office development once the hospital relocates. Those zones, which encompass about 3.5 acres near Witherspoon Street and Henry Avenue, are home to the current hospital parking garage and the hospital's Medical Arts Building. The entire 12-acre hospital site straddles the Borough/Township municipal boundary, and with its vote of approval Monday night, Township Committee assured that the existing garage, which will be able to accommodate up to 780 spaces under the new zoning, will service residential and commercial redevelopment on the Borough side.
Next, Princeton will play host to the state's Health Planning Board as Princeton HealthCare System pursues a certificate of need that would give the green light for the full investment of its relocation efforts. Scheduled to take place at the John Witherspoon Middle School auditorium next Wednesday, December 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., that hearing is likely to be the only opportunity for public input before Commissioner Dr. Fred Jacobs of the state's Department of Health and Senior Services makes a final decision, scheduled for January 4.
As Monday's Plainsboro presentation was conceptual, few questions were asked by planning board members, though they did indicate that more substantive issues are likely to arise as the township looks to change its master plan. The hospital's plans outline uses that are not compatible with zoning for that site, currently occupied by FMC Corp., which operates a research and technology center there.
Plans for the site indicate significant space on the site devoted to an age-restricted housing facility or a Continuing Care Retirement Community; fitness center; research and non-medical facilities; and medical offices.
Mr. Rabner outlined a phased construction for the hospital facility that would culminate in an eight-story, 960,000 square-foot space. Planners were also offered a glimpse of a 50,000-square-foot fitness center, and two medical office buildings with a combined 240,000 square-footage.
Plainsboro Township administrator Robert Sheehan said the municipality had contracted with several consultants to determine economic impact, as well as an affordable housing component for the new development. For that element, Mr. Sheehan said the municipality had contracted with Shirley Bishop, who worked closely with Princeton Borough when the state implemented new affordable housing laws last year.
Some residents worried about the potential traffic impact a new hospital facility and accompanying development would pose on the township's roads. Michael Cross said that while the hospital relocating to Plainsboro signaled "tremendous" gains for the township, he worried that hospital-bound drivers would travel at high speeds.
"High quality health care is something that really attracts people to the area, but getting back onto the Route 1 South is a huge challenge already," he said, pointing to the need for a right turn lane turning on to Harrison Street and one on Harrison Street on to Route 1 South. "I think that's going to take some collective political will."
Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, also a planning board member, agreed with Mr. Cross's list of concerns, adding a mention of the planned widening of the Millstone Bridge on Route 1: "All of those things should happen, and they should happen soon."
Mr. Cantu specifically pointed to Harrison Street access as a potential hurdle as hospital planning moves forward. In August, mayors and other representatives of both Princetons, Plainsboro Township, and West Windsor Township, met with state Department of Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri to discuss installing a designated turn lane for Harrison Street. Those talks are ongoing.
Mr. Hillier said traffic consultants would be brought on board as the planning process progressed.
The new, $350 million hospital facility is slated to open in fall 2010. Hospital officials have identified the site as central to the PHCS patient base, with a majority of patients coming from the east of Route 1.
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