In light of recurring concerns regarding the lasting impact of future development on a 12-acre site currently occupied by the University Medical Center at Princeton, members of Borough Council last Tuesday delayed a vote to introduce new zoning that will one day shape the in-town expanse, as well as an adjacent surface parking lot along Franklin Avenue.
Major concerns stemmed from the overall scale and density of development, which had been outlined in draft zoning from the joint municipal planning department in the late spring.
While members of Council seemed, for the most part, comfortable with recent revisions, the possibility that new development would cordon off surrounding neighborhoods remains as a central, and less easily resolved, issue.
For the most part, the three ordinances that were presented to Borough Council last week reflect the findings written into draft zoning delivered to Council in a July hearing. At that time, Lee Solow, the joint-municipal planning director, fielded concerns that the current hospital site is too tall for the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as potential problems with density.
The new codes, now slated for introduction next Tuesday, September 26, indicate that any new development will have a strict cap at 280 residential units, and that while reuse of the current buildings is encouraged so height could remain as is, if a developer were to shave the height, buildings would not be allowed to exceed five stories. The two hospital towers stand at eight stories.
Borough Council will not offer a final vote on the ordinances until later in the fall, after a public hearing for all three. The ordinances one outlining future development standards, creating a new MRRO (Mixed Residential Retail Office) zoning district; one mandating building design standards within the MRRO; and one that would create a new zone, R4A, on the existing surface parking lot on Franklin Avenue are seen as critical for the hospital to sell its land to a contract purchaser, the Philadelphia-based firm Lubert-Adler, and maximize the land sale that would, at least in part, help finance a $350 million facility in Plainsboro. Princeton HealthCare System has contracted with the FMC Corp. to purchase its lands off Plainsboro Road.
Franklin and Maple Terrace, the affordable housing facility at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Witherspoon Street, will also likely be up for discussion as any redevelopment prospects move forward. The 70-year-old complex is in need of major rehabilitation, and there appeared to be an interest on Council's end in incorporating zoning for that area in with the proposed R4A that applied to the adjacent Franklin Avenue lot. However, Council will, for now, proceed with the two components separately.
The idea of developing the two together grew out of concern that new construction on the 1.77-acre Franklin Avenue lot would run too close to the backyards of houses on Jefferson Road, which lie directly to the east of the site. Councilman Roger Martindell asked if development could be "clustered" toward Witherspoon Street, keeping more open space at the eastern portion of the site.
Mr. Solow balked, saying that he "wouldn't be comfortable" making that type of recommendation because it would push development toward another residential area the John-Witherspoon area to the west of Witherspoon Street. Mr. Solow did say that the height maximum, three stories as written into the proposed ordinance, could be elevated to four, so development would not be as spread out.
"If the goal is to say we need a buffer along Jefferson Road, we would come up with something," Mr. Solow said. "It's not that simple to encourage clustering without developing some kind of standard that goes along with it."
Regardless, the Borough's Housing Authority has expressed a significant desire to renovate the Franklin and Maple Terrace, and any planning for improvements is likely to coincide with planning for the hospital site and the Franklin Avenue lot.
Gail Ullman, a vice chair of the Regional Planning Board, said during a public hearing held later that it might be better to leave Franklin and Maple Terrace "off the map, because we could end up in a snarl."
Ms. Ullman did, however, encourage the Borough to act on the proposed zoning and to "trust" the Planning Board, which had recommended the zoning to the Borough earlier this year: "We're not going to have many more chances to develop in the Borough ever again."
Several Jefferson Road neighbors voiced concern about the potential traffic impact of a residential and commercial facility taking over the hospital site and suggested that a traffic study should be conducted. Hospital officials have maintained that traffic would decrease once the hospital leaves.
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