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Borough Weighs in on Hospital Site As Master Plan Hearing is Postponed

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Borough Council heard the latest update on planned revisions to the Community Master Plan last Tuesday, leaving at least one member of Council calling for an independent planning analysis of the Witherspoon campus of the University Medical Center at Princeton.

In related news, a hearing for the aforementioned revisions by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton's Master Plan Subcommittee was postponed indefinitely. Those revisions, which have outlined parameters for any future development on the hospital site, were originally scheduled to be heard Tuesday, October 18, but are now not expected to be revisited until after the New Year.

In the meantime, local officials are faced with the challenge of speculating on future development at the Witherspoon site, as well as the hospital's Merwick Rehab campus on Bayard Lane.

Councilwoman Wendy Benchley, who is also a member of the Planning Board, has called for an independent analysis focused on a strategy for dealing with the hospital's land, if it is successful in relocating.

"Until we know what the Master Plan language can produce, we won't know what it is we're inviting a developer to do," she said, adding that the hospital's own consultant envisioned only "high-end development." That proposal, designed by J. Robert Hillier, envisioned a 280-unit development with open and commercial space. That concept by Mr. Hillier, a hired consultant of the hospital and a minority owner of Town Topics, uses approximately 500,000 square feet — nearly the maximum of what the draft changes to the Master Plan would allow.

Ms. Benchley said that the property could be used for a less dense Continued Care Retirement Community (CCRC) and even cited a proposal for such development by an independent agency. However, as Princeton HealthCare System, the hospital's parent entity, owns and will sell its property to help finance the rebuilding of a new facility, the CCRC proposal was rejected months ago.

But a CCRC should remain in consideration, Ms. Benchley said: "This is an excellent property to do a modified CCRC. We already have a hospital building there."

She added that part of the building could be used for elderly and critical care.

"Because the way we approached this, the proposals that came to the hospital were for high-end development that gave the hospital more money," Ms. Benchley said.

Marvin Reed, a member of the Master Plan Subcommittee said it would be "risky" to start recommending specific uses for the site, rather than modify zoning that allows for a general type of housing or mixed used commercial and housing development.

Councilman Roger Martindell recommended a more "organic" approach allowing the site to be absorbed into the surrounding neighborhood: "We didn't ask the hospital to move, they wanted to move," he said, adding that the municipalities should have "no obligation" to help Princeton HealthCare System sell its land.

Councilman David Goldfarb said the hospital should be allowed to sell to a developer reflecting the wants of the community. Mr. Reed offered a more stringent approach: "Developers need to know what they can build."

Council President Mildred Trotman argued from the hypothetical developer's perspective saying that the zoning needs to be established before any specific proposals can be seriously considered.

"If I were a developer and I don't know how a site is zoned, there's no way in hell am I going to touch it."


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