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A Spotlight on Density As Residents, Planners Eye Hospital Campus

Matthew Hersh

As area planners moved toward established zoning parameters that would accommodate any future development on the site of the University Medical Center at Princeton, questions of density, not use, are still most on the minds of residents.

At Thursday's Regional Planning Board session focusing on the hospital site, some board members also examined the idea of the Borough and Township employing a joint consultant to study the future use of the hospital site.

At the fourth public forum where members of the Planning Board looked at both use and density of approximately nine acres to be developed along Witherspoon Street if UMCP leaves as planned, residents in the immediate neighborhood were largely opposed to the eight-story tower being retained for future use. But while planners have demonstrated a determination to come up with some zoning parameters that mesh with the neighborhood, a -certain amount of building density is needed to achieve goals such as senior housing ‹ a concept that has not been endorsed, but one that has been put forth in architect J. Robert Hillier's 280-unit plan that includes a park and some commercial spaces.

Princeton HealthCare System, the parent entity of UMCP, employed Mr. Hillier, a minority owner of Town Topics, to put together a concept that would give municipal planners an idea of what kind of zoning would be attractive to prospective developers. PHCS is also banking on the land sale to finance a portion of the hospital's proposed $350 million state-of-the-art campus.

However, the municipalities are hoping to use any new development as an opportunity to act on affordable housing requirements, as mandated by the state in the Council on Affordable Housing's new third round regulations. While neither the Borough nor the Township have yet put together an affordable housing plan that is compliant with the new rules, the hospital site is seen as a potential location of affordable units.

Building and population density, however, will determine how many affordable units can be built. As the density increases, the more affordable housing options present themselves, said Lee Solow, planning director for the Planning Board.

The Hillier concept envisions about 510,000 square-feet for total floor area, just slightly under the amount currently used by the hospital. Twenty percent of the units fall under the --mandatory designation of affordable housing, and the Planning Board has asked that the designation be increased to 25 percent. The Planning Board has also recommended that, in order to maximize affordable housing, at least 75 percent of the units not be age restricted.

That recommendation did not sit well with some board members like Wendy Benchley, who characterized a 510,000 square-foot complex as a "very, very dense housing development."

"I know a lot can be done with good design, but it's a lot of density and housing units for that neighborhood," she said.

Another planning board member, Borough Mayor Joe O'Neill, warned the board not to play a "shell game with any future developer," and to avoid "rigging the deal" for the hospital before a deal is actually done by creating master plan amendments that would dictate zoning and possibly restrict density allowance.

"We do not yet know what the square-footage is going to be on the Witherspoon Street campus, and though we know what the acreage is, we want to make sure we're not cheating the property owner," he said.

But several residents wondered how much the issue of density ‹ specifically the reduction of density ‹ actually means to the hospital and the sale of its land, and that the design of any future development be done in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods. Residents called for the Borough and Township to employ its own consultant to explore the possibilities found on the Witherspoon campus. In a statement, PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner said the reason the hospital contracted with Mr. Hillier's firm at the onset was to answer re-use questions.

Additionally, Mr. Rabner was afraid that bringing in new consultants would delay the planning process further:

"Since so much work has been done on this project already, we are uncertain about what value a new planner could bring to the process. Most importantly, the delays caused by repeating the process will actually jeopardize the viability of the hospital relocation project."

Other conclusions drawn up by the Planning Board are that the hospital-owned homes along Harris Road remain as private residences; the surgical center at the corner of Henry Avenue and Witherspoon Street should remain for office use; the parking garage should be re-used to serve whatever development follows the hospital's planned departure; and that the existing zoning that permits a general-use hospital should remain until UMCP relocates.

The Planning Board's Master Plan Subcommittee has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday, August 16, at 9 a.m. at Township Hall to begin drafting language for possible amendments to the master plan in regard to the hospital site.


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