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Hospital Site Planning Process Begins As Reed Tours Task Force Report

Matthew Hersh

A report put together by the independent task force assembled to address the future zoning needs of the Witherspoon Street hospital site is currently making its rounds throughout the community, picking up feedback along the way.

When the report was released to the public last month, Princeton Health Care Task Force Chairman Marvin Reed outlined a schedule that would enable him to present the findings of the report before all related municipal bodies, including Princeton Borough Council, Princeton Township Committee, the Princeton Regional Planning Board, and the Princeton Community Master Plan Sub-Committee.

And while Mr. Reed, the former Borough mayor, may seem more ubiquitous than snowfall these days as he makes his rounds, the tour indicates the beginning of what is expected to be the complex, arduous process of rezoning the 11.76 acre site of the University Medical Center at Princeton and the nine-acre site that houses Merwick Rehab on Bayard Lane.

This past week, as Mr. Reed brought the report to the Planning Board on Thursday and then to Township Committee on Monday, the community began to see the framework of a major development project.

For the most part, the report was taken at face value as municipal officials heard and processed it and the zoning recommendations put forth. However, some issues were clear from the start.

At Borough Council, and again at the planning board meeting, Wendy Benchley, a councilwoman and board member, emphasized that any research for pending development should be funded through an escrow account that would be financially fueled by the hospital's corporate parent, Princeton HealthCare System. Borough Council expressed the same opinion in a resolution that was passed after Mr. Reed's presentation.

"The resolution that we passed was very clear that the Borough would like to have the hospital [pay for research]," Ms. Benchley said Thursday.

Concerns about a prefabricated-type development were also voiced at the planning board hearing, but were quelled by Mr. Reed, who spoke for PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner when he said that development would be approached from a more sympathetic point-of-view: "Barry knows he can't send in some cookie-cutter development."

Board member Bill Enslin backed Ms. Benchley's sentiments, saying it was up to the hospital to spearhead the planning process. "I think this is a time for the hospital to step up and to fund the additional expenses that are involved in this."

Heidi Fichtenbaum, of Carnahan Place, addressed both the planning board and Township Committee as she worried about the additional 35,000 square-feet of breathing room the task force has recommended to allow the hospital to grow within the six years before pending relocation.

"This could be done in smaller pieces, but 35,000 square feet is a rather large building," she said, likening that amount of space to the office building on the corner of Henry Avenue and Witherspoon Street, a building that she listed as approximately 31,000 square feet.

Ms. Fichtenbaum, whose home is adjacent to the hospital campus, also objected to the task force recommendation that indicates a need for "plan B" zoning if the hospital is unsuccessful in its relocation effort.

"If we're going to do just-in-case zoning, I was sort of thinking that I could have a just-in-case tax break just in case my property values go into the toilet," she quipped.

Another obstacle the hospital will have to overcome, Mr. Reed said, was that of the third round of state affordable housing standards. Whatever happens to the hospital site will present a litmus test for how the municipalities handle the new standards that place stricter requirements on municipalities to include an affordable housing obligation with new development.

"I don't think we can wait for a developer come in and say 'oh wait, you also have to include some affordable units.' I spent ten years with Palmer Square because we got ourselves into that situation," Mr. Reed said, referring to his decade-long battle Palmer Properties LLC, the developer putting up 100 units on the northern end of Palmer Square along Paul Robeson Place. "Any kind of development is going to have to assume how to help the municipality meet its affordable housing requirements right from the start."

Touching on health care, Township Deputy Mayor Bernie Miller addressed the hospital's access from a new location, and wondered if patients who receive free clinical care are mostly from Princeton. Mr. Rabner indicated that about 30 percent of those who use the hospital's clinics live in Princeton Borough and Township, with about 16 percent of its in-patient population living in the Borough and Township.

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