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Task Force Endorses PHCS Relocation

Matthew Hersh

On the heels of last month's announcement by the trustees of Princeton HealthCare System concerning relocation options, a community task force has endorsed that decision through a report released Monday, ending a multi-year analysis of whether the 85-year Princeton hospital should expand on-site or move to the outskirts of town.

The report included 10 recommendations to Borough and Township zoning boards, the Princeton Regional Planning Board, and the respective governing bodies as to how the entities should handle the mammoth task of rezoning the 11.76 acres on Witherspoon Street, and the nine acres that make up the Merwick Rehab site on Bayard Lane.

Expected to cost in the area of $250 million, the move would create a nearby campus comprising the hospital, Merwick, Princeton House Behavioral Health, Princeton HomeCare Services, Princeton Fitness & Wellness Center, and the Princeton Surgical Center. That campus, according to PHCS officials, would be located within two to six miles of the hospital's present campus on Witherspoon Street.

After reviewing the strategic plan put forth by the hospital last year, the task force, a legal entity composed of Borough and Township zoning, planning, health, and elected officials, recommended that not only should the hospital continue its quest for a new campus outside of town, but that the Princeton Regional Planning Board should begin exploring various zoning alternatives if the hospital were not successful in its attempts to move, a possibility that, according to PHCS President & CEO Barry Rabner, is not "in the cards." If relocation efforts are unsuccessful, Borough Council and Township Committee would have to amend the Princeton Community Master Plan, and, as the current hospital site straddles the two municipalities, the Borough and Township zoning boards would have to expand the HMC and H-2 zoning districts respectively. The Borough's HMC includes the adjacent surface lot on Franklin Avenue, and the Township's H-2 includes four hospital-owned single-family homes on Harris Road.

The task force report also recommended that if on-site expansion were to occur, abutting properties in the area should be included in rezoning, including the former gas station currently used by the Princeton Packet on the corner of Witherspoon Street and Henry Avenue; the Borough Housing -Authority-managed Maple Terrace and Franklin Terrace; and the office building on the corner of Witherspoon Street and Witherspoon Lane, including the townhouses and apartments on the north side of Witherspoon Lane. According to the report, seven of the 10 task force members were in favor of this zoning expansion, with Township Committeeman Bill Enslin, Borough Council President Mildred Trotman, and Mr. Reed dissenting, saying their support of the hospital's plans "must be balanced against protection for the surrounding residential neighborhood from a significant increase in the presence of the Medical Center," adding that doubling the size of the hospital and whatever the subsequent traffic increase "does not strike that balance." However, expanding on-site, Mr. Rabner said, is "unlikely," but it is "imaginable." He said the hospital's board is now focusing "all efforts on identifying the best location nearby," adding that a target site for the campus would be decided on in the next several weeks. The move, Mr. Rabner said, would not occur for another five to six years.

Overall, Mr. Rabner said he was "very pleased" with the task force report.

"I thought the it was very reasonable because they are trying to balance the enormous needs that we have with the preferences of the community to preserve what is here and the interest of the community in having a hospital that remains state-of-the-art. That's very difficult." Mr. Rabner did say, however, that he was happy to see that the report offered no outright reflection of the findings of Alan Sager, the independent consultant from Boston University hired by the task force to analyze the PHCS strategic plan. "We had hoped that his work would inform our planning process, by testing the assumptions and reasonableness of what we were thinking, but I found [Sager's report] to be very generic."

"He looked at national information and sort of extrapolated that to the activities of the hospital," Mr. Rabner said.

In the meantime, the immediate needs of the hospital should be accomodated, including an additional 35,000 square feet of construction on the current campus, so that the hospital can continue to "operate efficiently," according to the task force report.

"We're suggesting an immediate adjustment in the zoning regulation to accommodate the laboratory and other infrastructural improvements," Marvin Reed, chairman of the task force said. He added that these adjustments could mean building "up." The task force did not recommend that Borough Council or Township Committee declare the current hospital campus as a state-designated "area in need of redevelopment," adding that it was not recommended to acquire adjacent properties under the guise of "eminent domain." Additional recommendations included one that the planning board choreograph any rezoning so that compatible standards are applied in both the Borough and Township; that the planning board and zoning boards consider amendments to the master plan, thus enabling the sale and development of the existing PHCS properties; and that particular consideration be given to maintaining some sort of in-town access facility for emergency purposes. This last recommendation was not supported by Township Board of Health Commissioner Norman Sissman and Ms. Trotman, who said in the report that emphasizing such consideration "does not achieve [the] goal of providing equal access to clinic and emergency services for all Princetonians after the hospital moves out of town."

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