Any future development where the University Medical Center at Princeton currently stands became significantly easier to visualize Thursday when the Regional Planning Board, after months of deliberation, voted on Master Plan guidelines that will ultimately dictate zoning for housing, stores, and open space on the Witherspoon Street site.
A major component in Board deliberations stemmed from a proposal originated by the community planning group, Princeton Future, calling for streets to be built through the site, in an effort to preclude development that, some residents fear, will section off the surrounding neighborhoods.
A petition offered to the members of the Planning Board (a group of 42 residents largely from immediately surrounding neighborhoods) called for a "sense of place," and that the "character of established neighborhoods" should translate over to any future development on the hospital site, particularly concerning the potential height and scale of new development. As worded in the new Master Plan amendments, new development could result in up to 280 units, both affordable and market rate, up to 440,000 square feet of development or re-use of current buildings (the current and anticipated medical and hospital buildings on the site currently comprise 440,864 square feet), and up to 180 feet of commercial space that that could extend to the corner of Witherspoon and Franklin Avenue.
New wording worked into the amendments last week could soften the level of density by including the possibility of a neighborhood street running through the site. It remains up to the developer, the Philadelphia-based Lubert-Adler, as to the configuration of the street or if it will extend streets like Leigh or Birch avenues through the site.
Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS), the hospital's parent company, announced in November that it would relocate both the hospital and Merwick Care Center, currently on Bayard Lane, to a $350 million, state-of-the-art facility on a 160-acre tract near Plainsboro Road in Plainsboro. In addition to Lubert-Adler, Princeton University has agreed to terms that will result in the school's acquisition of the nine acres at Merwick and a two-acre surface parking lot adjacent to the hospital on Franklin Avenue. The cost of the sales of the three sites, which has not been disclosed by PHCS, will go toward the cost of the new facility.
The issue of the through street, which is a perceived victory for Princeton Future and residents in favor of such a configuration, does not appear to be a closed matter, however. While that element of the Master Plan amendment was approved 9-0 by the Planning Board and must now be considered by any developer, architect J. Robert Hillier, a consultant who has been working with PHCS on future designs of the hospital site as the hospital pursued an attractive sale offer from prospective developers, said a through street could prove to be more difficult than some might think.
One idea for a through street continuing to Harris Road past the current garage would be a "physical impossibility," Mr. Hillier said, because a street would need up to 60 feet, taking out two houses on Harris Road.
Princeton Future has suggested streets more in the vein of narrow throughways like Bank and Pine Streets, but Mr. Hillier, who is also a minority owner of Town Topics, has said in the past that including streets as part of the development subtracts the level of housing a developer could build into the area.
Planning Board members Phyllis Marchand and Marvin Reed said a street should not be mandated in the master plan, but could be left up to the developer. "We've mandated 50,000 square feet of open space for this development, which is considerably more than what is there now," Mr. Reed said, adding that those levels could increase, but not "if we start carving it up with a street.
"I think there could be playgrounds in this area that will be available to residents in the neighborhood and open space for Franklin Avenue, but I don't see a need for a street actually going through," he said.
Board member Peter Madison took an even more decisive tone in arguing against a roadway on-site: "In my opinion, streets don't serve people, they serve cars."
But Alan Goodheart, a local landscape architect, maintained that a through street "does not mean straight necessarily," and that, echoing Princeton Future's assertion, a street does not need to be 60 feet wide, adding that a street can be "casual" in a neighborhood.
Ron Berlin of Jefferson Road said a street built through the site does not "exclusively" need to be linked to Harris Road, but emphasized the importance of a throughway that is not in the manner of a cul-de-sac: "If you have any hope of creating some semblance of a neighborhood, I think that is really of the essence."
Members of the Planning Board also supported the idea of increasing walking areas, allowing residents of surrounding neighborhoods to walk in and out of any new development with relative ease.
At the end of the day, a sense of somewhat reluctant compromise seemed to prevail, and the audience applauded when Master Plan language was adopted to "envision" a roadway in any future development.
"I think the outcome reflects a wise balance between the neighbors and the needs of the community and the health needs of the region," said Barry Rabner, president and CEO of PHCS. He added that in regard to Lubert-Adler, the prospective developer of the hospital site, a final agreement of sale is being drafted.
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