In a decisive setback in a longstanding campaign to build market rate senior housing in Princeton Township, developer giant K. Hovnanian Homes has decided to pull out of a project to construct an already approved, 62-and-up, 140-unit housing complex slated to be built on Bunn Drive, just south of Hilltop Park.
The move coincides with recent reports that Hovnanian Enterprises, combating a rising stock of unsold homes, is letting go executive staff and other personnel. In light of these uphill battles, there had been speculation in recent weeks that the developer would balk at bringing its senior living Four Seasons brand to the 20.9-acre expanse in the Township.
While environmental concerns had complicated the entire planning process for the project, which received final Planning Board approval in October of last year, the developer instead cited a number of market forces, including the sales pace slowdown of new and resale houses, lower-than-expected sales prices, and rising construction costs amid falling revenue, and the basic land price to acquire the property.
"What we could afford to give the property owner was much less than what they wanted," said Shirleen Roberts, who served as the developer's legal representation through the planning process for the prospective Township development.
Hovnanian's pullout does not necessarily preclude another developer from coming in, this time with development precedent, and building senior housing on the property, barring drastic changes to the site plan. "We still have time to assign other good builders to continue on that site," said Laura Lowe of Short Hills, who, along with her husband William, owns the property. It is, however, too soon to tell if another developer is waiting in the wings, she added.
"It's certainly a disappointment to us, as I imagine it is to the Township, but after all, it's Princeton, and it's a good piece of property and there are a lot of people who are interested," Ms. Lowe added.
Echoing Ms. Roberts, Ms. Lowe said the Township could widen the market attraction if it were to change the zoning for the area to allow 55-and-up housing rather than placing the minimum age at 62. "A lot of developers are worried, they're nervous, and Hovnanian was talking with the Township, but somehow, they weren't able to lower the age, and right after that, they sort of backed out," Ms. Lowe said, but added that the Township did "do the right thing to zone that area for senior housing.
"But unfortunately, right before Hovnanian was ready to go ahead, the market slowed down."
Township officials have indicated that the age restrictions were negotiable at the eleventh hour after Hovnanian said it would not build on that site, but at that point, it appears that the market factor had already convinced the developer and negotiations ceased.
"I know that the housing market is not what it was, but this project was so embraced by so many different groups in this community, I really thought it would go forward," said Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, adding that Hovnanian's pulling out of the project was a "big disappointment."
The Township designated the Bunn Drive site, as well as a tract along Mt. Lucas Road, as part of a senior overlay zone in 2001 in an effort to increase market rate senior housing within the Township. That designation, in part, stemmed from the opening of Stonebridge, a retirement community in Montgomery where many former Princeton seniors now live.
A proposal to build a 48-unit development of market-value senior housing is still being reviewed by the joint-municipal planning department, but that application has been stalled for several years now. The developer, Intell, had initially proposed over 100 units before Hovnanian approached the Township and the Lowes, and has repeatedly revised their plan over the years.
Outside of that overlay zone, another developer, Regal Homes, is seeking zoning variances to build 98 55-and-up units across from the former Hovnanian site, this time on a two-parcel, 14-acre tract on the eastern side of Bunn in both the Township's OR-2 and R-2 zones. Frank Petrino, an attorney representing Regal throughout the zoning process, said it was possible, but unlikely, for now, that his client would seek the tract in the overlay, largely because that site is already zoned for 62-and-up. "That was something the Township put into their ordinance, and it's something they might want to rethink," Mr. Petrino said.
Interest in moving the Regal application to the former Hovnanian site is "something that certainly seems logical," Mr. Petrino added, while making clear that his client's current application would stand as is. That development proposal faces an ongoing battle stemming from several environmental concerns related to the slope of the site and a potential increase of stormwater runoff.
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