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Merwick Rezoning Pushes Senior Housing Debate

Linda Arntzenius

At last week’s meeting of Princeton Borough Council, the revised zoning ordinance for 30 acres of land occupied by Princeton HealthCare System’s Merwick Rehab Hospital and Nursing facility, Princeton University’s Stanworth Apartments, and the YM/YWCA was unanimously approved after discussion by Council members, and comments from the public and representatives of Princeton University.

The ordinance, which was amended from its original draft to permit up to 30 units of senior housing, 50 percent of which would go to Borough and Township residents, received both praise and criticism.

Zoning Board member Michael Floyd, a resident of Quarry Street, pointed out that the ordinance allows for senior housing but does not require that it be built. “Make no mistake, this is not a mandate for senior housing,” he said.

Princeton University’s vice president and secretary Robert Durkee began by addressing the concern, expressed in earlier meetings by Councilwoman Barbara Trelsted, that the University had not made its plans for the site clear. “If the University goes ahead with the purchase, Merwick will look very much like Stanworth, housing University employees, faculty and staff in affordable units for those on middle-incomes, including retirees,” he said, adding that the University was prepared to allow the hospital to continue to make use of the property after transfer of title.

Asked by Councilman Kevin Wilkes as to whether the University would take advantage of the density-bonus, Mr. Durkee replied: “It is up to the Council to decide on an affordable housing requirement.” He declined to categorically say whether the University would accept or reject the incentive.

In reply to an email from Town Topics, Mr. Durkee said: “It will be several years before we develop specific plans for the site, but when we do we certainly will consider the availability of the density bonus. In addition to the faculty and staff units we construct, we also will be required to provide a significant number of affordable housing units (probably about 25) and decisions about the allocation of those units will be made by the Borough. The Borough also will benefit from a significant increase in tax revenues when the property is developed to the density that will be permitted under the ordinance.”

But at last week’s meeting, Pierina Thayer, a resident of Chestnut Street and a member of the Affordable Housing Board, was skeptical about the advantages of the new zoning ordinance. Ms. Thayer identified herself as the mother of grown children who cannot afford to live in their own home town. She asked the Council to consider that the land in question is a most valuable resource to the Borough and that the zoning change from R1 to R4 was a prize for which the Borough should exact maximum value. “Why are we willing to give up so much for so little in return?” she asked. “If we are tailoring zoning to the needs of a particular developer then we ought to hold their feet to the fire on behalf of the community.”

Ms. Thayer’s remarks elicited a round of applause from the audience, many of whom also queried the ordinance because it lacks a requirement for housing that would benefit the community in terms of senior housing, affordable housing, or affordable senior housing. One resident asked whether a developer might be interested in the property even if the zoning ordinance included some such more stringent requirement.

In a telephone interview, Friday, Ms. Thayer went further in criticizing Borough Council. “I am not alone in wondering what would compel a governing body to repeatedly operate in the interests of Princeton University, a non-profit with an enormous endowment [currently estimated at $14.2 billion], which has a history of successfully negotiating exemption from the COAH rules under which, as a developer, it was required to provide affordable housing that Princeton so badly needs.”

Councilman Andrew Koontz described the senior housing provision as a positive advance. Council President Margaret Karcher said she hoped the university would take advantage of the density bonus. Councilman Wilkes also urged the University to take advantage of it and to “be a good neighbor and step up to the plate.” He called the ordinance “admirable.”

Before Council put the matter to the vote, however, Councilman Roger Martindell tried to table the ordinance for further discussion. He read prepared remarks addressed to the mayor and Council.

While Mr. Martindell said that he was proud of the fact that the Council is taking an “activist stand” in talking about a commitment to provide senior housing within walking distance of Princeton’s Central Business District, he said that the ordinance did not go far enough to produce that end result. “What’s missing from this draft is that, despite all its high-minded language, this ordinance will not in fact necessarily produce any senior housing — period.”

Furthermore, he said, “University representatives have told members of our community, including me personally, that the University intends to develop the Merwick site for University faculty and staff housing and not provide senior housing, with or without a Princeton preference.”

Given that the University is under no legal obligation to build senior housing, Mr. Martindell suggested that the ordinance be amended to offer a stronger inducement for it to do so. Such an increased incentive might be to rezone for less than the 14 units per acre that the University seeks for Merwick/Stanworth housing and make the desired units per acre conditional on senior housing with a Princeton preference. “Our planning director has crafted language in this draft ordinance that would give the University a bonus of 30 units more than 14 units per acre if the University builds senior housing at the Merwick/Stanworth site. Nevertheless, the University has basically said it is not interested in following the requirements of the ordinance that would promote senior housing at the site. In essence, the University has expressed an intention to forego the bonus that we offer in our draft ordinance,” he said.

The vote by Council members Ms. Karcher, Mr. Koontz, Mr.Martindell, Ms. Trelsted, and Mr. Wilkes was all in favor.

Mayor Trotman and Councilman David Goldfarb have recused themselves from these hearings because Ms. Trotman’s son works for Princeton House, a division of Princeton HealthCare System, and Mr. Goldfarb works for the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP.

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