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Differing Concepts For Hospital Site Weighed by Planners

Matthew Hersh

As architects and planners alike put their minds together last Thursday evening to figure out just what to do with the 11.76-acre site that makes up the main campus of the University Medical Center at Princeton, the Planning Board's hearing process was the subject that initially dominated the evening.

The Planning Board heard conceptual development proposals from both the hospital and Princeton Future, an organization that sponsors discussion on in-town development hoping to find a way to adjust the Princeton Community Master Plan to allow zoning changes on site. Planning Board officials have said that those parameters should be in place by mid-summer, with possible Master Plan amendments coming as early as the fall.

Much of the hospital's campus is zoned strictly for hospitals, and other medical uses. If some sort of residential use were to replace the hospital, which is likely, the site's zoning would have to be drastically changed.

The hospital has employed the services of J. Robert Hillier, of the West Windsor-based Hillier Architecture, to draw up conceptual housing sketches for the site. Mr. Hillier proposed turning the main eight-story hospital tower into a 280-unit complex for individuals aged 55 and above, pointing out that traffic could be reduced up to 50 percent if the site received mainly residential use. In addition to emphasizing the affordable housing factor, thus encouraging more of a diverse residential make-up, the architect proposed a public fitness center and day care center.

Mr. Hillier also envisioned developing the surface parking lot on Franklin Avenue that abuts the Princeton Cemetary to 23 townhouses, flats, or duplexes.

The total project,he said, could result in $3.7 to 3.9 million in tax-generating structures. Barry Rabner, president and CEO of Princeton HealthCare System, the hospital's parent entity, said that PHCS, which could stand to lose $15 million yearly if it does not move, was looking for the "broad support" of a residential concept but assured the board that while the sale of the property is instrumental in relocating, PHCS would look for a developer that would comply with the guidelines ultimately put forth by the Planning Board.

"We are not going to pick a developer that pays the most," he said.

Princeton Future, which has been engaged in the ongoing Witherspoon Street Corridor Study since November, was invited to present their study to the Planning Board after they released a series of schematics for the hospital site. Those scenarios, seven in all, do not rely on one comprehensive development scheme, rather, they attempt to have the hospital's 12 acres absorbed into the surrounding neighborhoods, with new streets and anywhere from 111 to 306 various types of housing ranging in affordability, and a park, tentatively called "Unity Park," as a nod to the site's location on the Borough/Township municipal border.

"We're not asking for concept approval, we're asking you to think conceptually," said Michael Mostoller, an architect and co-chair of Princeton Future, adding that the study viewed the hospital site as a "super block."

Roz Denard, a former Township Committeewoman and a founder of Community Without Walls, spoke on behalf of the organization whose aim is to ensure seniors aging "in place" without having to move to the fringes of the community to receive the care they might need. The 12-year-old, 400-member organization has advocated establishing a continued-care retirement community (CCRC) at the hospital site.

"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a focal point in the community. The need for senior housing is no longer a question," she said.

Mr. Hillier presented his proposal to members of CWW on May 16.

Questioning the Process

Prior to Thursday's presentations, however, questions about the appropriateness of some individuals' presence on the Planning Board arose.

Yina Moore, an architect and a Borough member of the Planning Board, recused herself from the hearing because of her affiliation with Princeton Future, one of the presenters of the evening. However, she prefaced her recusal with some remarks tailored for Planning Board members who were also members of the Princeton Health Care Task Force, a band of municipal officials grouped to determine what some of the best uses for the future of the hospital site could be.

Ms. Moore recused herself from the first of these hearings on April 21 at the request of Planning Board attorney Alan Porter, she said. Her work with Princeton Future, which has devised specific housing and mixed-use scenarios for the hospital site, would conflict with the ultimate judgment of the Planning Board, she said she was told. But after being "blind-sided to make a hasty judgment," Ms. Moore said she rethought her recusal. "Whether that involvement might compromise my decision-making, I do question," she said. "I reject the [notion] then, as I do now, that I would not consider all facts and opinions, just as I had hoped members of the Task Force would have in making specific recommendations several months ago, and just as I hoped the mayors and Township Committee and Borough Council would."

Hendricks Davis, a John Street resident, charged the Planning Board with being engaged in a "flawed process" because of the participation of some members on the Task Force.

"Their conclusions are a matter of record and as such are prejudicial, rendering their continued participation in this matter very problematic," he said, adding that those members should be recused in weighing Master Plan amendments.

Mr. Davis also called for a public record of 11 Task Force meetings that were not open to the public.

"I think it's very important for the public to have a sense of who was at the meetings, what was discussed, and what conclusive statements or options might have come from those meetings," he said, adding that his same concerns had been expressed in a May 16 letter to the Planning Board's Mr. Porter.

Mr. Porter said there is "no problem" with an advisory committee studying issues within the purview of the Planning Board, but those advisory committees cannot act on those particular studies; official actions are reserved for the Planning Board, and addressed in a public arena. The attorney added that recusal is typically merited when a member of the Planning Board has a private, direct, personal, or fianancial interest in the subject matter that would "taint" the action of the board member.

Planning Board member Wendy Benchley asked Mr. Porter what the difference was between Ms. Moore's involvement and that of the Task Force members. Mr. Porter said that the main distinction is that Princeton Future is a private organization while the Task Force was a public committee. Mr. Porter also pointed to the fact that Princeton Future's Witherspoon Street Corridor Study, which focuses in part on the hospital, is ongoing.

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