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Hospital Neighborhood Likely to Feel Impact Of Any Decision Made

Matthew Hersh

Is a Princeton-based hospital necessary? Should a hospital in dire need of expansion remain in a built-out town when more than 80 percent of that hospital's patients are coming in from surrounding areas? If the hospital were to stay in town, would Princeton Borough and Township be willing to grant zoning variances allowing the hospital to build "up," and possibly build "in" to surrounding neighborhoods?

These questions were tackled last week at the Princeton Health Care Task Force's third public forum-style meeting. That session, however, while not delivering definitive answers, did facilitate some new discussions.

The task force, composed of Borough and Township planning, zoning, and elected officials, outlined the possibilities of the on-site expansion of the University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP), and in doing so, awakened many residents to a fact of life urban hospitals often impose: displacement.

For the record, the hospital has offered no indication that it desires to expand into surrounding neighborhoods. The evidence put forth in the strategic plan and the testimonial given in the public forums provides, to many, a good argument for a more comprehensive campus nearby. But on Thursday evening at Township Hall, the idea of an expanded urban hospital was examined.

The task force, which had initially intended for Thursday's forum to focus on alternate uses for the hospital's Witherspoon Street campus and Merwick, switched gears in light of the fact that the discussion on expanding the hospital on-site had yet to conclude.

"We were ready to move to the next step, but then we discovered we weren't ready to do that yet," said Marvin Reed, chairman of the task force.

If it didn't succeed in answering questions, October's public forum "certainly got people thinking about the direction [in which] the medical center wanted to go and where the task force wanted to go," Mr. Reed said.

Citing "new calculations" and "new thinking," the task force members found the public meeting serving as a means for them to deliberate among themselves with public input, rather than the previous format of presentation/response.

Rick Collier, a consultant of the task force, indicated that the feasibility of an on-site expanded Witherspoon campus would be simplified if the entire hospital block were under the jurisdiction of one zoning district. In fact, there are five different zoning districts within the block squared off by Harris Road, Witherspoon Street, and Franklin and Henry avenues. Further, the hospital, which straddles the Borough/Township municipal line, is also subject to dealing with the zoning mandates of both towns: each with their own specific hospital zoning.

"You can appreciate how complicated this actually is," Mr. Collier said.

There are also residential zones that exist within the block and extend outside toward surrounding neighborhoods, Mr. Collier said, thus leaving the hospital with only a limited number of choices: "If you're going to expand, you either go out or you go up, or a combination of both." "That's the trade-off and those are the compromises that have to be looked at to accommodate growth," Mr. Collier said, adding that the hospital is essentially "maxed-out" in the 9.9-acre block.

In making his argument for an in-town hospital, Carlos Rodrigues, task force member and chairman of the Township Zoning Board, said the community should do "whatever it can to accommodate expansion" and that UMCP should seek variances if it does decide to stay within Princeton's borders.

"The community has given the medical center the message that it needs to stay where it is, keep still, that it cannot expand, and be a dynamic institution, while at the same time, requiring it provide the best care possible," Mr. Rodrigues said.

"That is not a fair situation in my view," he added.

If the hospital chooses to stay in town, Mr. Rodrigues said, the task force would have to find a way to allow that to happen. Mr. Rodrigues, who is the former manager of plan implementation at the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth, outlined how the hospital could physically adapt to that neighborhood.

"All you need to do is take a walk around and see awkward situations that have been awkwardly resolved throughout the years and could very significantly be improved," he said, referring to various parcels of land that are "under-used" in the region. Specifically, Mr. Rodrigues pointed to the former service station at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Henry Avenue now used as a parking lot and storage area for the Princeton Packet. "It's a prominent corner, and if the medical center were to provide for replacement parking for the Packet, it would seem to me that the lot would provide for a suitable location for the hospital to expand." Among other areas Mr. Rodrigues called into question were: a large parcel along Franklin Avenue that is currently used for surface parking; four empty residences along Harris Road that are currently owned by the hospital, and the public housing on Franklin Avenue near the corner of Witherspoon Street. Mr. Rodrigues suggested that if those houses were to be replaced, a portion of the Merwick site along Bayard Lane could be re-zoned to relocate them.

Mr. Rodrigues said, however, that the preference would be not to encroach on surrounding neighborhoods, echoing the comments of Jan Bishop, an architectural consultant for the hospital, who also said that she would also not recommend expanding into neighboring communities. Residents are not entirely consoled, however. For some homeowners in the hospital neighborhood, the prospect of an expanded medical center is not only upsetting, but might, some fear, decrease the value of their properties.

"My wife is pregnant with her first child and according to hospital's plans, it kind of looks like the hospital wouldn't even buy us out," said Simon Fill, a Harris Road resident who lives nearby, but not within the boundaries of some of the models for proposed hospital expansion. He worried that if he were not to receive fair market value for his home, he, his wife, and their soon-to-be newborn would risk living in a home worth far less than what it was worth when it was purchased a year ago.

"It sounds like they haven't addressed those concerns," Mr. Fill said.

According to a letter to Mr. Fill from Carol Norris, vice president of Marketing and Public Affairs for Princeton HealthCare System, the future of the hospital is still being weighed, including any possible impact on the future of that neighborhood.

"No decision has been made regarding whether to renovate and expand the hospital on its current site or to build a replacement facility," Ms. Norris wrote, adding that she was "not able to answer questions regarding the houses on Harris Road or the possibility that any services would remain in Princeton if the hospital were to move." Ms. Norris continued by noting that "all aspects" of the situation are under consideration by the hospital in an attempt to arrive at a decision that "will affect the hospital and the communities it serves for the next several decades."

With respect to the task force, Mr. Fill said he hoped there would be some answers for those whose homes are "directly impacted" by any decision of the hospital's.

85 Years

With all this talk of the hospital staying or going, it should be noted that the medical center has been an integral part of the Princeton Community for several generations. So it is fitting that in light of these imminent changes, the hospital is celebrating its 85th anniversary at 253 Witherspoon Street.

The hospital opened in 1919 as a 22-bed unit with one operating room. The land, previously occupied by the Pierson Farm, was five acres of valuable space needed to service a community that was then still a stop-off between Philadelphia and New York City.

The 22-bed unit has grown into a 310-bed acute care teaching hospital with a complete range of inpatient, outpatient and emergency care services. With over 800 physicians and dentists, the medical center literally opened the door for generations to come, delivering 1,891 babies and handling 35,556 emergency department cases.

This Friday, a special ceremony will be held at 10:30 a.m., to dedicate and name the 281 building on the UMCP campus in honor of the physician who served as the hospital's first president of the Board of Trustees ‹ Charles Browne, who also served as mayor when the medical facility was established. The Dr. Charles Browne Medical Pavilion will recognize Dr. Browne's commitment to the hospital and the Princeton community.

On Saturday, November 20, those attending A November Night, the annual fall gala hosted by the Auxiliary of UMCP, will have the opportunity to view an exhibit highlighting the hospital's 85 years. This year's gala, the Vintners Ball, will be held at Bristol-Myers Squibb's corporate headquarters in Lawrenceville. For more information, call (609) 497-4069.

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