Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 46
 
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
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Senior Housing Talks Recall 2001 Concerns Over Ridge Development

Matthew Hersh

Even though a 20-acre wooded expanse on Bunn Drive in Princeton Township’s northwestern section has long been zoned for development, environmentalists and residents filled Township Hall Monday to plea for a reconsideration of development zoning along a section of the Princeton Ridge.

Monday’s hearing was the latest in what is now a 15-year campaign by housing advocates to build market-rate senior housing in the Princeton community for aging residents looking to downsize their houses. The campaign reached a high-water mark in 2001, when Township Hall voted to place a housing overlay, allowing for higher-density development geared for senior housing complexes, over two key Township parcels: a 30-acre site off Mount Lucas Road, slated for a 49-unit housing development, and the Bunn Drive site, which had been the site on which national developer K. Hovnanian had intended to build 140 senior units before backing out in 2006 amid concerns over the senior housing market.

Enter architect J. Robert Hillier. In August, Mr. Hillier launched an unexpected appeal to Township Committee, asking that the overlay zone on Bunn Drive be amended to allow residents age 55 and over only, rather than the current 62-and-over restriction. At that August hearing, Mr. Hillier, a shareholder of Town Topics Inc., envisioned developing 149 units on the former Hovnanian site, using about seven acres. The less dense Hovnanian plan, which received approval by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton in 2005, outraged downstream residents and environmentalists alike.

Mr. Hillier’s proposal has sparked another sort of confrontation, however. Planners worried that the Hovnanian plan would damage what is generally regarded as a heavily wooded area, laden with bedrock and containing a high water table. But when Hovnanian backed out, two new conversations began. The first concerned Mr. Hillier’s assertion that senior housing is a needed community amenity, and that lowering the age mandate to 55 would open the marketability of a development. The other was from the environmental side, with advocates now urging Township Hall to rescind the senior overlay zone altogether.

The underlying zoning on the Bunn parcel is for office research, which is consistent with much of the use on the Bunn Drive corridor.

The Hillier proposal, which will not be filed with the municipal planning department until the zoning issue is resolved, outlines a 200,000-square-foot “Italian Village, replete with piazzas, underground parking, and sod roofs,” Mr. Hillier said. Units would fall in the $400,000 range.

The development would also require about 12 affordable housing units. Mr. Hillier, whose $10 million purchase of the 20-acre parcel and an adjacent three-acre tract south of the Princeton Community Village entrance, also said that the three-acre piece of land would be contributed to Princeton Community Housing, the managing agent of Princeton Community Village, in an effort to expand the Village by 12 units. Mr. Hillier added that his firm would contribute $300,000 to the Township’s affordable housing fund.

The Short Hills-based firm Chatham Capital Investors, LLC, whose principals Laura and Arthur Lowe, were in attendance Monday night, currently owns the land.

Weighing the Princeton Community Master Plan goals of environmental protection, senior housing, and affordable housing, Princeton planning director Lee Solow said that developing the land would not be “an easy decision to make,” but urged Township Committee to make changes “that will make for a better plan.”

In addition to reducing age requirements from 62 to 55, the amended zoning, Mr. Solow said, would include keeping eight-and-a-half acres of the Bunn tract undeveloped, increasing the height allowance from 49 feet to 54 feet, and reducing impervious surface coverage limits from 40 percent to 30 percent.

And while environmentalists acknowledged efforts to minimize the environmental impact, it was the location of the proposed development that did not sit well with most of the assembled crowd of 100.

David Breithaupt, who chairs the Princeton Environmental Commission, urged Committee to rescind the housing zoning there. He argued that senior housing should be located at one of the vacated hospital sites, adding that the “urgent need” of Committee in providing senior housing would not be met through a more “general market” development. Mr. Breithaupt also said that increased zoning on the Ridge would exacerbate flooding along Harry’s Brook. The Environmental Commission has submitted two letters to Township Committee this year urging the governing body to remove zoning that would allow housing there. Township resident Daniel Harris called increased Ridge development “foolhardy. Allowing further development on the Ridge would not only be irresponsible but perhaps culpable,” he said.

But Eleanor Angoff, a long-time senior housing advocate who now lives at Stonebridge in Montgomery, urged Committee to relax the zoning: “The population in Princeton is getting older and it’s getting grayer, and a lot of people have had to leave this town because there’s no place to go.”

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An amendment to the current zoning would have to be approved by Township Committee through an ordinance, now scheduled for introduction November 24. If Committee signs off on the initial ordinance, the amendment would then be referred to the Planning Board, which is expected to review the code December 6, sending it back to Committee for final passage or rejection at Committee’s December 17 hearing.

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