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Vol. LXI, No. 29
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
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Borough Considers Merwick Rezoning, Master Plan Issues

Linda Arntzenius

Rezoning issues took centerstage at last week's Borough Council meeting, held Tuesday, July 10, at 7:30 p.m.

The council considered the future development of a 32-acre tract that includes the YMCA and YWCA properties, the Princeton University-owned Stanworth housing project, and the Merwick site that the University is interested in purchasing from the Medical Center, following the decision by Princeton HealthCare System to relocate the Merwick Rehab Hospital & Nursing Care facility to Plainsboro.

Lee Solow, Director of the Regional Planning Board, presented a "Master Plan Amendment — Merwick/Stanworth" as a follow-up to his presentation last month that outlined potential goals for the site: primarily residential use of the Stanworth and Merwick properties, the future expansion of the Ys, maintaining residential densities compatible with the John Street/Witherspoon Street neighborhood, and encouraging flexibility.

The council discussed in turn: density (units per acre); affordable and middle income housing; building height/number of stories; open space, buffering, and woodlands; public access; circulation: vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle; unit mix and design standards; area to be rezoned; potential purchaser; age-restricted housing; and a possible parking garage.

The council's discussion of redeveloping the area bordering the John Street/Witherspoon Street neighborhood focused on affordable housing, senior housing, and access.

The wide-ranging discussion was intended to better define zoning of the area for Mr. Solow, who is working toward a Master Plan re-examination for submission this fall.

Councilman David Goldfarb said the possibility of more residential units should be accompanied by improved traffic access that should not be solely restricted to Route 206.

Access via John Street was dismissed because of the necessity of demolishing a home there. It was suggested that access might be possible through the existing Y property, for which a trade-off might be made to allow the Y to build a parking garage on the Merwick site, which has the advantage of being on a slope so that a garage might be screened from view. Reconfiguring the intersection of John Street and Paul Robeson Place was also suggested.

Councilman Roger Martindell argued that a parking garage would benefit the town as a whole. After a lengthy discussion of the point, Councilman Andrew Koontz suggested that the garage should not "drive the development."

Specific zoning amendments that would require a specific portion of senior and/or middle income homes was discussed.

Warning that too many restrictions would be tantamount to "micromanaging," potential development, council member Wendy Benchley suggested considering the three sites separately rather than as one.

"We may be setting up a Pandora's box for ourselves, where no development can go on for five or 10 years while we work out this really complicated, multiple parcel master plan," she said. "I think we need to keep a certain amount of balance here and not put so many restrictions on this property that we discourage not only the University, but any other developer from coming in."

When Marc Solomon the attorney for Princeton HealthCare System, addressed the council, he also warned that too many restrictions might drive away a buyer who was sensitive to the Borough's needs. He suggested that the University would, in effect, give the Borough what it wanted while too many restrictions on the site would result in the opposite. "There is a high demand in the marketplace for as many million-dollar-and-up units as you can build," he said.

Representing the University, Community and Regional Affairs Director Kristin Appelget urged rezoning for flexibility. She said that while the University has announced its intention to purchase the site, there was no specific site plan as yet.

Borough Assistant Attorney Karen Cayci reported that she is working with Mr. Solow on the legality of "permitting," "encouraging," or "requiring" a potential developer to build a parking garage and also about the legality of "requiring" middle income housing.

Master Plan Subcommittee Chairman Marvin Reed reminded the council that they were being asked to rezone the Merwick property so that the Princeton HealthCare System might sell it, with Princeton University as a possible buyer. He said that in the long run the important task was to rezone the property to create a good neighborhood. "All three property owners must be involved in this process," he said. He urged the council to make sure that the new community is joined to the existing community, accepting new streets as public streets.

Further discussion of the issue will take place in September. For more on this issue, see Councilman Roger Martindell's letter to the editor on page 17.

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