The Regional Planning Board held off a vote Thursday night on future zoning of the site currently occupied by the University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP). The board had been widely expected to come to a resolution on zoning guideline changes in the Princeton Community Master Plan. but members said more time was needed to assess the proposed changes.
Proposed zoning revisions that have circulated within the Planning Board's Master Plan Subcommittee for months include a floor area and density not to exceed approximately 440,000 square feet and up to 280 residential units built in the Borough portion of the site, though that number could fall if an increased number of two-bedroom units are added to the mix.
With the recent announcement that the hospital will leave Princeton for the FMC Corporation site on the north side of Route 1 in Plainsboro, any future development of the current site, likely in the form of a mix of residential and commercial use, needs to be preceded by zoning changes to the 12-acre hospital block.
The Planning Board has arrived at a consensus that any new structures built on the site should avoid a "monolithic appearance." It is expected, however, that any new development will include the reuse of the hospital's two eight-story towers. Barry Rabner, president and CEO of Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS), the hospital's parent company, announced two weeks ago that the site would be purchased and developed by the Philadelphia-based firm Lubert-Adler.
Princeton University has been named the contract purchaser of PHCS's nine-acre Merwick Care Center on Bayard Lane, and the surface parking lot on Franklin Avenue, adjacent to the hospital.
Mr. Rabner has said that the construction of a new, $350 million hospital, with a target opening date of Spring 2010, is largely contingent on the sale of the hospital's land holdings and that costs related to materials and labor will rise as a proposed 2007 groundbreaking is delayed.
Once the Planning Board decided that it would not act to change the Master Plan, Mr. Rabner quickly exited the hearing while it was still in progress.
In a November interview held before Plainsboro was identified as the intended location of UMCP, Mr. Rabner said that delays in a groundbreaking for a new facility could result in a loss of nearly $40,000 a day.
Exacerbating the construction-related cost increases, he added, is the rising cost of oil due to Hurricane Katrina's continuing impact on the Gulf Coast. Mr. Rabner also cited a building boom in China that has created a scarcity in steel for other construction products.
But with continuing resident concern over whether large buildings like the hospital's fit the Master Plan goals of creating projects in harmony with surrounding neighborhoods, and with questions over the affordable housing that will be included in any future development, some Planning Board members said they needed more time to weigh the changes. They cited the resident's concern about how large buildings would fit into the neighborhood and the continuing question about the place of affordable housing in any future.
Calling the proposed changes "flawed and incomplete," Planning Board member Jacqueline Tillman, also the chairperson of the Planning Board's Master Plan Subcommittee, called for further deliberations.
Heidi Fichtenbaum agreed. A resident of Carnahan Place, which borders the hospital site, she said the current proposals "lack vision" and are "money-driven" as the hospital tries to maximize density in order to make the site attractive to a prospective developer.
However, some members of the Planning Board contended that the site should remain dense to get significant levels of affordable housing into the mix.
Despite the fact that the current proposals to change the Master Plan have largely been in their current form since early fall, Planning Board members have not made large strides toward a consensus as to the future of the site. So while some members of the Planning Board maintain that the Master Plan's purpose is to discuss ideal solutions and guidelines for town planning, others held specific ideas on the design.
Board member Phil Feig echoed Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand's assertion that the role of the Master Plan was not to design the site, but rather to set fluid guidelines. Mr. Feig warned that any development on the hospital site would be stuck in a state of "suspended animation" if the Planning Board attempted to design it.
Wendy Benchley, a board member who sits on Borough Council, questioned issues of height and the percentage of retail, and revisited the idea of continuing a street like Birch Avenue through the site while Board member Bill Enslin took up the idea of placing a Continued Care Retirement Community there.
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