Princeton Regional Planning Board concluded last week that developer AvalonBay’s request for increased density in the rental complex they hope to build at the site of the University Medical Center at Princeton conflicts with the master plan. Their 9-1 decision not to endorse the proposal was sent to Borough Council, which was to consider the zoning ordinance at its meeting last night, after press time.
The Planning Board’s vote came at the end of a four-hour meeting April 19, packed with residents of the neighborhood surrounding the hospital site. Most were opposed to AvalonBay’s request. While some welcomed developer Ron Ladell’s announcement, midway through the meeting, that the company was withdrawing its request for fewer affordable housing units in exchange for higher density, they still registered concerns.
“I am proud to announce that the request to reduce the affordable percentage from 20 to 17.3 percent is being withdrawn,” said Mr. Ladell, who is AvalonBay Communities’ senior vice president. “We are happy to provide 20 percent at the increased density of 324 units that will result in 65 affordable on-site units. This has never been done in Princeton. It would set a precedent both in Princeton and throughout the state.”
AvalonBay is under contract to buy the hospital site. They plan to demolish the seven-story building and build rental apartments. Market rate units, including studios to three-bedroom apartments, would have rents from $1,600 to $3,200 per month.
Resident Joe McGeady told the Board that the master plan’s provisions for retail, a playground, and other public areas should be retained and the zoning should not be changed. “A great opportunity is slipping through our hands,” he said. “The plan has minimum open space on Witherspoon. The town deserves better. I would hate to see us miss this chance and settle for the ordinary because an ordinance that is inconsistent with the master plan was allowed to pass through the planning board.”
Borough resident Alexi Assmus said the original number of 280 maximum units for the 5.6-acre hospital site, arrived at after numerous public meetings, was “a big compromise on the part of the neighborhood. The compromise was made in order to allow the hospital to sell the site for a higher price than if the rezoning had required a much smaller number of units. A smaller number of units would have been in keeping with the neighborhood character of single family houses.”
Raising the number of units after a contract has been signed “is bad business and is unfair to the community and to the numerous other potential buyers who are eager to redevelop the property,” Ms. Assmus added (see letter on page 10).
Some in the packed meeting room spoke in favor of the request. Borough Council President Barbara Trelstad said the extra density proposal was smart growth, serving working people who could otherwise not afford to live in Princeton. “The average home in Princeton costs $453,000. A down payment of $90,000 is significantly out of reach for most working class folks,” she said. Ms. Trelstad added that AvalonBay’s plan for usable front porches “puts eyes on the street.”
Also in favor was Sandra Persichetti, executive director of Princeton Community Housing. “Over 500 families are waiting for an affordable apartment,” she said, urging the Planning Board to take action. “We hope people learn from the past that endless conversation is not in anyone’s interest,” she said. “We do not want to see abandoned buildings and blight at the site. The project is acceptable to us as long as it is built in a timely fashion …. I urge you to think about those living in substandard conditions who don’t have a home to go to tonight.”
Grace Sinden, a founding member of Sustainable Princeton, said Princeton Borough should require or promote the idea that the developer adhere to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] standards rather than Energy Star, which AvalonBay prefers for this development. “Energy Star applies to household appliances and light bulbs,” she said. “Municipalities do not value it as highly as LEED.”
Representing the Site Plan Review Advisory Board [SPRAB], member Bill Wolfe cited concerns about the scope, style, and design standards for the complex. “SPRAB would prefer an open development, more in keeping with the neighborhood,” he said, adding that a possible compromise would be to make open space at the rental complex more accessible to the public. The “monolithic floor plans” could be broken down to vary story heights and lessen the mass, he said. “SPRAB believes LEED is applicable and should be recommended,” he said, adding that the Board is “emphatically opposed to the density bonus.”
Board member Bernie Miller said he had concerns about the lack of retail in AvalonBay’s plan. “It makes the development less inclusive,” he said. Mr. Miller also said that the figure of 280 was arrived at after careful negotiations with neighbors. “I have difficulty supporting a higher number even with the offer of providing a 20 percent affordable set-aside,” he said. “If we can’t invoke LEED standards, but perhaps if the developer stood up and said he would volunteer …. I wonder why he is not stepping forward and saying he will volunteer.”
The only member of the Board to vote in favor of the request was former Princeton Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman, who lives in the neighborhood of the proposed development. She said she had no problem with the increased density idea, and added that AvalonBay is exceeding open space standards as well as other issues. “The more I look at this, the more I think the impact on the community will be minimized compared to what is there now,” she said.
At the meeting, the Board did endorse some of the developer’s requested zoning changes including installing signs, adding a leasing office, allowing some loft apartments, and adjusting an internal lot line.