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Vol. LXI, No. 25
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
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Borough Hall Examines Merwick Tract as Plainsboro Eyes Redevelopment Area

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Borough Council last week got its first taste of a rezoning effort that will result in the likely redevelopment of nearly 30 acres of fertile land that abuts not only the Borough's commercial district, but also two neighborhoods that are in close proximity, but different both culturally and economically.

The stretch of land along Bayard Lane, comprising Princeton HealthCare System's Merwick Care Center, the YM/WCA, and Princeton University's Stanworth faculty apartments, underwent an intense review last year as the Regional Planning Board of Princeton sought to change the Princeton Community Master Plan to prepare for Merwick's departure once Princeton HealthCare System relocates that facility, as well at the University Medical Center at Princeton, to a 158-acre expanse in Plainsboro off Route 1 on the current FMC Corp. site.

Because of the Merwick property's proximity to the YM/YWCA, the Y will likely use the opportunity to update its own facility, and Princeton University, which is the contract purchaser for the nine-acre Merwick site, would likely convert the area, if revised zoning were approved, to graduate housing, as well as updating the 154 apartments on the 17-acre Merwick site.

But last week, Borough Council embarked on its own series of meetings to explore the possibilities on that site, as well as the type of density desired there. Lee Solow, the municipal planning director, spoke of existing zoning, and what is allowed under law, and what could be allowed under changed zoning. "How many units do we want, and how do we want to get them there?" he asked, adding that existing zoning on the Stanworth property, the Borough's R-4 zone, actually allows for up to 234 units. Both Merwick and the Y properties currently fall into the Borough's R-1 zone, which would allow for far less dense development.

The Borough's discussion, which will continue in July, preceded a potential step forward in PHCS's development of its Plainsboro land. On Monday, the Plainsboro Township Committee passed a resolution allowing for the Plainsboro Planning Board to examine whether the FMC property qualifies as an area in need of redevelopment — an initial step in a process that may lead to the designation of the site as a redevelopment area and would effectively facilitate the planning process for the proposed hospital relocation.

Last December, PHCS representatives appeared before the Plainsboro Planning Board offering a conceptual proposal for a 636,000-square-foot hospital with the potential for a 324,000-square-foot expansion; a 120,000-square-foot medical office building with the possibility of another 120,000-square-foot medical office building in the future, and a 120,000-square-foot long-term care facility. The presentation also indicated that a portion of the site located on the south side of Plainsboro Road would be used for private development.

PHCS has also proposed a 400-unit continuing care retirement community next to the future hospital site.

The hospital's 12-acre Witherspoon campus, which straddles the Princeton Borough--Princeton Township municipal line, was rezoned last year to accommodate future residential, commercial, and office space, but the Merwick site appears to be more complicated, with three property owners involved. Princeton University, the contract purchaser for the nine-acre Merwick tract, has not offered a proposal for that site, so the Borough would likely rezone prior to the University's eventual plan for the area. University officials, however, have indicated that the Merwick site would be used for graduate and faculty housing.

Council members Roger Martindell, David Goldfarb, and Wendy Benchley favored the idea of some type of senior housing for the Merwick site, or a mix of senior and student housing. "I do think that if we could require a certain percentage of senior units," Ms. Benchley said, "that it would create a very nice mix."

Mr. Martindell agreed, saying the Borough should not speculate about the University's future plans for the site: "I'm not sure we need to zone this to ensure the University's purpose of the property.

"If we think this is good for seniors, then this is what we should be doing," he said.

Marvin Reed, a former Borough mayor and member of the Regional Planning Board of Princeton, urged a blend of character between John Street to the east and any new development, but agreed that the property's purchaser should not dictate the rezoning process. "Our goal is to build a good, new neighborhood downtown."

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