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Architect's Petition Eyes Alternate UMCP Subdivision Plan

Matthew Hersh

A Princeton architect has submitted a petition to the members of the Regional Planning Board of Princeton with a plea to consider rezoning the site in a manner that would emphasize individual properties, and avoid so-called "corporate superblocks." The architect, Ron Berlin, has acquired about 70 signatures, mainly from residents living in the hospital neighborhood. The petition urges the Planning Board to consider subdividing the property to "create new sections of town modeled directly on Princeton's historic pattern of ownership." According to the petition, the hospital's own proposition for the site, a 280-unit complex using existing buildings and converting the hospital's eight-story tower constitutes a "large property block under corporate ownership," with a "variety that is superficial." More philosophical than fact-oriented, the petition, in Mr. Berlin's words, calls for a "more traditional, safe" subdividing of the lot and contracting out to different developers, with an eye toward extending the neighborhoods east and west into the 11.76-acre hospital block, bound by Henry and Franklin avenues, Witherspoon Street and Harris Road.

"This issue is a very complicated one and it's a huge chunk of territory," Mr. Berlin said, also calling for the Planning Board to consider the Witherspoon campus and the Merwick Rehab Hospital & Nursing Care site on Bayard Lane simultaneously. Barry Rabner, president and CEO of Princeton HeathCare System, the parent entity of UMCP, said that PHCS will seek to sell the Merwick property regardless of whether or not the hospital is successful in moving.

"I think it's a mistake that they're not being considered at the same time," Mr. Berlin said. "It has to do with the notion of providing affordable housing, especially for older people." The Merwick facility, he added, was the place where an assisted living facility "should" be located because of its close proximity to downtown Princeton.

And while Mr. Berlin said he has his own "strong" feelings about how the hospital and Merwick sites should be planned, he said he "deliberately avoided those issues" in drafting the petition (see Mailbox, page 16), and the issue of whether any of the existing -buildings should -remain. "I really tried to concentrate it down to its essence: what's the approach to the development? What do people value in town?" He placed an emphasis on building housing that gives the homeowner the opportunity to make individualized improvements. "It's real diversity," he said. Mr. Berlin acknowledged that while the hospital site is privately owned, its facilities work toward the "greater good" of the community and that the hospital's paid consultants should not be the only party putting forth ideas for the Planning Board to consider.

Hospital officials did not respond to a written request for comment on Mr. Berlin's petition. However, Edwin Schmierer, the Township's municipal attorney, who also practices real estate and land use law, said that it is up to PHCS regarding to whom the property is sold and that the hospital has "cooperated" by gathering public input to arrive at a decision.

"I think Barry Rabner and the trustees have really bent over backwards to explore the options about what would make sense to them and about what would make sense to the community," he said. "But when the dust settles, the final decision about how the property is packaged and marketed will be a decision made by the Medical Center and the Medical Center alone." Generally, what both municipal and hospital officials are trying to avoid is the prospect of litigation. Considering that the hospital is privately-owned, PHCS officials are working with municipal planning officials to rezone the site concurrent with UMCP goals: to build a $300 million facility on a 50-acre plot of land between two and six miles from the Witherspoon campus site. PHCS is going to rely heavily on the sale of the Witherspoon and Merwick campuses for the initial capital in getting a new campus in the ground. If the Planning Board were to make master plan recommendations that resulted in a severe devaluation of the land, the hospital would likely sue.

And while the Planning Board is looking to rezone the site to ensure uniformity of structure and usage, the basic purpose of zoning, according to a November 2002 report on affordable housing written by Borough Mayor Joe O'Neill, is to prevent the loss of property values by setting such structural and use standards.

"If the hospital doesn't get a decent price for their property, then they can't move," said the mayor, who is also a member of the Planning Board.

Mr. O'Neill said the issue of "down zoning" is what makes Mr. Berlin's petition difficult to consider, adding that it is "very unusual" for a planning board to subdivide a property such as the hospital's, adding that it is usually up to the property owner who comes to a planning board to seek subdivision. "Obviously the hospital is an unusual property that has accrued its density over its 85 years," but the action of downzoning is also unusual, the mayor said. Mr. O'Neill also said that it is not "clear" that better outcomes would result in reproducing in the hospital area what exists in the neighborhoods surrounding the hospital. "But we'll see what happens."

The Planning Board is scheduled to hold another discussion on the hospital's Witherspoon campus this Thursday, July 14, at 7:30 p.m. at Township Hall.

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