November 6, 2012

Planning Board Review Of AvalonBay Resuming At November 15 Meeting

Hoping to have their say, residents opposed to AvalonBay Communities’ plans for development of the former University Medical Center of Princeton site turned out in force at the Thursday, October 25, special meeting of the Regional Planning Board. But there was no time for public comment at the hearing of site plan applications, as the Board took on the complicated issue of jurisdiction.

The standing-room-only meeting began with a response by Board attorney Gerald Muller to a nine-page letter from the attorney for the group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods. The letter says that AvalonBay needs to have one of two site plan applications it submitted approved by the Township Zoning Board of Adjustment rather than the Planning Board, because it involves a section that is zoned commercial.

“It is my opinion that the [Planning] Board does have jurisdiction,” Mr. Muller said in response to the letter. “I don’t believe a use variance is necessary.” Rob Simon, the attorney for the citizens’ group, argued otherwise. Asked by Planning Board member Bernie Miller whether he has dealt with this type of issue before, Mr. Muller said, “This is very unusual.”

AvalonBay, which is under contract to build a 360,000-square-foot complex of 280 rental units where the old hospital building stands, had requested two site plan applications: A minor application for the parking garage, a portion of which lies in the Township, and a major application for construction of its new buildings, which would be in the Borough. Representatives for AvalonBay were asked to combine the applications into one, but they declined.

The deadline for the Township application was about to expire on October 26, while the Borough portion expires December 15. Mr. Muller expressed concern that the Township application could be legally eligible for automatic approval if the Board didn’t act on it by the end of the meeting. The Board then voted to consider both applications rather than just the one for the Township portion.

The letter from the citizens’ group also asserts that there are environmental issues that AvalonBay has not sufficiently addressed. The Planning Board meeting came a day after a meeting of the Princeton Environmental Commission, which voted to recommend that the Planning Board consider hiring an environmental engineer to determine whether sufficient testing has been carried out at the former hospital site. More soil and groundwater testing, either before or during construction was also recommended.

Planning Board member Marvin Reed commented during the Thursday meeting that AvalonBay’s application is “deficient.” He recalled chairing a special task force in 2005 on whether the hospital should expand at its Witherspoon Street location or move to a new site [the hospital moved to new headquarters in Plainsboro last May]. Mr. Reed said there were numerous meetings involving hospital administration and members of the community, and that the hospital agreed that at least two parks would be established at the site, similar to Hinds Plaza outside Princeton Public Library. While AvalonBay’s plans do include one public and one private courtyard, they do not reflect those original plans, Mr. Reed said.

“I submit to you that somewhere along the line, the good will of the medical center seems to have disappeared,” he concluded, to applause from the audience. “The proposal we’ve seen today is a very scaled-back version, particularly in the way to bring people together. That’s what we should try to achieve.”

Mr. Reed then handed copies of documents for the proposed park to AvalonBay Senior Vice President Ron Ladell, Mr. Simon, and Mark Solomon, who is attorney for the medical center.

Mr. Ladell, attorney Ann Studholme, and Jeremy Lang of Maser Consulting, which carried out studies for the development firm, testified at the meeting about the minor site plan. Also speaking were members of the Princeton Environmental Commission and the Site Plan Review Advisory Board, each of which recommended certain limitations to AvalonBay’s plan.

Testimony on the minor site plan was not complete by the end of the meeting, and Mr. Ladell ultimately agreed to extend the deadline to November 15, which is the date of the next Planning Board meeting.