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If Hospital Decides to Move, Community Should Be Prepared

Matthew Hersh

As the Princeton HealthCare System weighs its options on relocation, expansion, or perhaps both, a community task force put together to offer independent recommendations has set its sights on what might occupy the hospital site if it were to vacate its current facility at 253 Witherspoon Street. That group, the Princeton Health Care Task Force, began discussions in a public forum at Township Hall last Wednesday on possible uses for the site now occupied by the University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP), which is part of PHCS.

The recommendations for possible uses of the site included a hotel/conference center, residential housing, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), or institutional use such as graduate student apartments, University faculty housing, or a mixed use of housing, shops, and parking.

While still not hailed as a foregone conclusion, the hospital's relocation has been the subject of more practical discussion than the arguments that have been made supporting in-town expansion. Alan Sager, a Boston University health care, finance, and planning professor, was brought in to offer an objective analysis on how the hospital should achieve its goals as outlined in its recently-released master plan. He ultimately determined in late-September that if the hospital were to follow its goals, that is, to function adequately in the future medical world, to provide the cost of on-going maintenance, and to accommodate desired increases in service intensity, it would ultimately compel it to relocate somewhere nearby. Prof. Sager warned at the time that if the hospital were to expand on-site to accommodate its needs for the next 25 years, UMCP would revisit the same issues it faces today.

In recent meetings, the task force, which is composed of Borough and Township planning, zoning, and elected officials, has explored the possibility of achieving the hospital's goals on-site. It entertained the idea of building a 13-story building, and expanding outward onto neighboring streets, namely Franklin Avenue, Harris Road, and Henry Avenue.

But at those meetings and again at last Wednesday's forum, Jan Bishop, an architect with Princeton-based Hillier Architecture who specializes in hospital architecture and planning, recommended that the hospital not expand into the surrounding neighborhood. "In 25 years, you are going to be asking the same questions," she said, echoing Prof. Sager's prognosis.

For the record, the hospital has offered no indication that it will stay or go, and the task force will resume their study in March, when other sites occupied by PHCS will be examined.

But after revisiting the on-site expansion issue, the task force quickly went ahead Wednesday to explore possibile future uses for the 11.76-acre site, if the hospital were to leave.

"What you see here, is that the more we ask [the hospital] to project into the future, the less likely it became that we were going to arrive at anything that the task force would be able to recommend," said Marvin Reed, chairman of the task force.

"We're at the point now, where we want to take some time out and look at alternative uses [of the site] if we couldn't give [UMCP] enough expansion space in order to justify the investment they would have to make."

Mr. Reed did say, however, that he did not "foresee" the hospital moving out and leaving its buildings empty, indicating that re-occupation plans would be firmly entrenched by the time the hospital makes a decision. An empty facility "doesn't help the hospital, and it certainly doesn't help us," Mr. Reed added. "Our interest is to see what can happen on that site other than a boarded-up hospital."

Secondly, Mr. Reed said it was also "unlikely" that if the hospital were to move, that all the current buildings would be torn down for something new, indicating that several of the current buildings could be converted for alternate usage. The problem is zoning, Mr. Reed said. The site, which straddles the Borough/Township municipal line, is largely zoned for hospitals or for a mix of hospital and residential use. Some of the site that lies in the Township is zoned for a mix of business and residential use.

Mr. Reed said the desire of the task force was to make sure the site was not divided divided into "bits and pieces" and sold off to various developers, saying there should be "special design standards [and a] comprehensive, total development." He added that any future use should generate less traffic and allow for the re-use of existing structures. John Street resident Hendricks Davis said that any recommendations put forth by the task force should not only require resident input, but that the task force itself should include members of the community.

In expressing his desire to see the hospital site developed as a total package, Mr. Reed likened such development to that of Palmer Square, a sentiment that did not sit well with some members of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. Several blocks of that neighborhood were razed or relocated to build Palmer Square beginning in 1929.

"That caused me some concern," Mr. Davis said. "That's problematic language in the neighborhood in which I live." Mr. Reed said he used Palmer Square as an example because it is a prominent instance of planned development in Princeton, "but I'll tell you right off the bat, one of the mistakes that happened [with Palmer Square] is that they waited for the developer to make the proposal, and what I'm suggesting here is that the town should be much more precise as to what its goals and objectives are."

"We should not wait until Hovnanian shows up at the planning board."

The Merwick Rehab Hospital and Nursing site on Bayard Lane, which would also be affected by a Princeton HealthCare System move, was not specifically addressed, but task force members said that would be a topic of future discussions, adding they started with the hospital because the issues at hand were more "complicated" as far as zoning was concerned.

Residents were generally pleased with the discussion process, but indicated that while this is the final task force meeting until spring, there is a significant amount of dialogue that has yet to take place. Quickly moving toward the senior housing issue, several residents said senior and affordable housing should be a priority to keep residents from leaving town for less expensive living.

"We should be thinking about why people should have to move out when they are fragile," said Borough resident Fran Benson.

Mr. Reed left the discussion open-ended, pointing out that the requirements handed down by new regulations put forth by the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) have yet to be discussed for any future tenant of the hospital site. The new COAH regulations, which require stricter affordable housing requirements on developers, are set to take effect on Monday.

Barry Rabner, president and CEO of Princeton HealthCare System, also opened the door for future discussion. "I do not know what the best solution is – there are a lot of them." One future obstacle for the hospital, Mr. Rabner added, is the state review process for any application put forth by PHCS that could directly impact any relocation prospects.


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