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Merwick the Focus As Area Institutions Discuss Possibilities

Matthew Hersh

In a departure from the discussion held by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton in examining the University Medical Center of Princeton's (UMCP) main campus on Witherspoon Street, a Planning Board subcommittee has begun to look at another prominent Borough site slated for the auction block: Merwick Rehab Hospital & Nursing Care at 79 Bayard Lane.

Merwick, which sits on a nine-acre site just northwest of the YM/WCA, will be sold by its parent entity, Princeton HealthCare System, whether UMCP is successful in moving or not, according to PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner. The Planning Board's Master Plan Subcommittee met Tuesday to discuss possible zoning changes to the site once it is vacated by PHCS.

The discussion was attended by representatives of PHCS, YM/WCA, and Princeton University, which owns the 154-unit Stanworth Apartments to the north of Merwick. Planners convened to determine whether the Merwick site should be approached looking primarily at the nine-acre site, or by factoring in the development prospects of of the nearby entities.

The Y and Merwick are subject to the Borough's R-1 zoning code, which allows for residential and low density development, with Stanworth falling in the R-4, zone similar to that of the adjacent John-Witherspoon neighborhood.

The Master Plan Subcommittee called for a joint discussion of the three entities to acquire a sense of their future development prospects. Former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed, chairman of the Master Plan Subcommittee, said the purpose of the meeting was also to protect the "underlying interests of the properties as well as the adjacent neighborhoods."

Other Master Plan concerns, Mr. Reed added, relate to open space and the historic elements of the area, as well as affordable housing required under any new development, as mandated under the state's Council on Affordable Housing laws.

As recently as last month, Mr. Rabner has said that while Princeton University's interest in the UMCP campus has waned, the school has continued to express interest in the Merwick property. But Tuesday's session was simply a preliminary hearing on a subject the Planning Board has put on the backburner, until now.

Representatives of the Y are currently renovating their athletic building and hope to embark on a renovation of their program building, which does not "meet the needs" of the YMCA or YWCA, according to Judith Klitgaard, former president of the YWCA board of trustees. The trustees are, however, "committed" to staying on Paul Robeson Place.

Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of Princeton University, said no immediate plans were in place for the 154-unit Stanworth Apartments, but left the discussion open-ended when he said that the complex was not built to its full zoning potential.

Mr. Durkee said that if the University were to acquire Merwick, it would be "very interested" in creating access from Paul Robeson Place, easing traffic flow along Bayard Lane.

PHCS' Mr. Rabner said he is waiting for developers' proposals for the site. He said he asked for interested builders to put forth propositions using the current R-1 zoning, and then the hypothetical R-4, if the Planning Board were to find it necessary to alter the zoning there. Those proposals are expected to be submitted to Mr. Rabner's office by June 21.

Architect J. Robert Hillier said the R-4 configuration of the Merwick site could allow for "more flexibility" by doing more "intense" development on the upper, or westernmost, part of the site. Merwick Wood and Gardens are part of the site.

Mr. Hillier, a PHCS paid consultant and head of the West Windsor-based Hillier Architecture, is also a minority owner of Town Topics.

Michael Mostoller, co-chair of Princeton Future, a community group that sponsors discussion on in-town development, said there is an "emerging synergy" of the entire Merwick area and that the area needed a "unifying structure." He suggested extending Chambers Street to act as a "buffer" for the John Street area. An evening Planning Board session devoted to the Merwick site has yet to be scheduled.


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