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Hospital Will Leave Princeton

Matthew Hersh

After a two-and-a-half year study, the Board of Trustees of Princeton HealthCare System voted Monday night to pursue plans to build a replacement hospital beyond Princeton's borders – marking the relocation of an in-town facility that has grown to capacity over the course of its 85 years.

The move, which was expected by many, will occur in approximately five years. The new, as-yet-undisclosed location will be within two to six miles of PHCS' current campus at 253 Witherspoon Street. All 24 board members present voted in favor of the move. Four members were absent and did not vote.

The announcement, which came only four days after Capital Health System (CHS) announced plans to build a 300-bed facility in nearby Lawrence Township, marks the beginning of a capital campaign for upwards of $250 million to build a new home for all factions of PHCS, which comprises the hospital, Princeton House Behavioral Health, Merwick Rehab Hospital, Princeton HomeCare Services, Princeton Fitness & Wellness Center, and the Princeton Surgical Center.

PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner said there are now four to five 50-acre locations that "look very good" and hopes to announce a decision by the end of June. The current hospital, he added, will remain open until a new one is built.

These plans are contingent on how much the hospital expects to raise philanthropically, how much it can borrow, and, most notably, how much it can acquire for the sale of assets, including the 11.76-acre site on which main campus stands and the roughly nine acres of property occupied by Merwick on Bayard Lane.

The move is a necessity, Mr. Rabner said, in PHCS's effort to remain a competitive hospital. With eight regional hospitals in Mercer, Hunterdon, Somerset, and Middlesex counties, including a potential ninth with the Capital Health System announcement, PHCS will suffer if it does not begin to get on track for relocating to a site that has enough acreage to accommodate future expansion.

"The important question was 'can we meet the community's long-term health care needs with our current facilities, or do they need to be replaced?'"

As it turns out, they need to be replaced, and not in Princeton.

John Chamberlin, the chairman of the hospital's board, said that board members had tried to figure out how the hospital could stay within Princeton's borders. But as the strategic plan was released, it became exceedingly difficult to envision an expanded in-town campus without taking measures that would endanger surrounding neighborhoods.

"It was pretty clear, after a while, that it was Draconian what would have to be done for us to stay here and would not be in the best interest of our patients and would not be in the best interest of the population."

Thursday's announcement by Capital Health System for a new Lawrenceville hospital did not sway the PHCS decision one way or another, Mr. Rabner said.

"What I know about Capital Health is what I read in the newspaper, and from what I understand, their objectives and ours are not similar.

"We're planning to build a replacement facility so we can continue what we've done historically in the same community we've traditionally served."

Mr. Rabner pointed to the Capital Health plan as an augmentation to facilities the system currently holds in Trenton, adding that PHCS has spent time working with local officials to benefit patients it currently serves, rather than cultivating potential new patients.

It has yet to be seen, however, if CHS' intentions to build a new facility in Lawrence will impact the Princeton hospital's future location or if it precludes the Princeton hospital moving south or west. That possibility, however, was not supported by hospital officials. "Our decision is based on the patients our hospital has traditionally served, where they live, and what their needs are," Mr. Rabner said.

He also indicated that the hospital had been in talks "for many months" with owners of the considered sites, and that the hospital has been contacted by various developers who have expressed interest in the present Witherspoon site.

Because of the virtually simultaneous announcements of both hospitals' intentions to move, the two facilities will undergo parallel review processes to merit "certificates of need." That state process is ultimately supervised by New Jersey's Heath and Senior Services Commissioner, Clifton Lacy.

According to the general provisions put forth in that process, Dr. Lacy would have the power to inquire into "the accessibility to and the availability of health care services and the operation of health care facilities." Additionally, the commissioner would determine the "fitness and adequacy of the premises."

Before the hospital can apply for a certificate of need, it must submit all relevant material to the state, including revenue, patient service area, goals as stated in the hospital's strategic plan, and, of course, the intended location of the hospital.

The entire study. which began by compiling a strategic plan to outline the hospital's goals and objectives, was coupled with a public municipal process carried out by the Princeton Health Care Task Force, a legal municipal entity composed of Princeton Borough and Township planning, zoning, health and elected officials. The task force, which has held four public forums exploring the physical logistics of either an in-town expansion or off-site relocation, was originally intended to serve in a capacity that would facilitate whatever action is needed now that the hospital has decided it will vacate the premises. The hospital and the Princeton Regional Planning Board are now expected to work to find a new tenant to occupy that land and, after receiving task force recommendations, the planning board will make decisions accordingly.

Mr. Rabner said it was his belief that the task force would agree on a set of guidelines that developers should consider when preparing a proposal for the land.

Marvin Reed, chairman of the task force and former Borough mayor, said the preferred usage for the hospital site included a variety of residential uses, including a continuing care retirement community, other forms of assisted living, or possibly Princeton University graduate housing. University officials, Mr. Rabner said, have remained in contact with hospital representatives indicating a possible interest in that site.

Calling the hospital's relocation decision "consistent" with the task force's analysis, Mr. Reed added that the task force will issue a set of recommendations to the planning board so it can begin the "legal process" of what would have to be done for any new tenant. That would include "some provision" for the hospital that preserves some "minimal amount of space" where the hospital could make lesser on-site expansion if it can't resolve its relocation efforts.

The task force report will also include recommendations for rezoning both the hospital and Merwick properties so they can be redeveloped once vacated. That process, Mr. Reed added, will take place under the regular proceedings of the planning board.

Mr. Reed emphasized the public process under which the planning board functions, possibly addressing concerns by some residents that the task force should have acted with more transparency.


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