November 21, 2012

Planning Board Sets Three More Meetings On AvalonBay Project

Testimony on the rental community that developer AvalonBay is contracted to build at the former site of the University Medical Center continued on November 15 at a meeting of the Regional Planning Board. Postponements caused by Superstorm Sandy and a glitch in the recording equipment at the previous meeting, requiring some rehashing of testimony, slowed down the proceedings.

And time is of the essence. The Board has until December 15 to rule on the application, a deadline that AvalonBay senior vice president Ron Ladell has said will not be extended. Meetings on December 6, 10, and 13 will be devoted to further discussion of the proposed development, the Board decided at the packed gathering last week.

Many residents have expressed concerns about the environmental impact and design standards of the 280-unit development [see related stories on this page]. As described by Mr. Ladell and architect Jonathan Metz of the firm Perkins Eastman, the four-to-five story building is designed to have two courtyards, one of which is open to the public and the other which would be closed off for security reasons.

“We looked at the building as sitting in a garden,” said Mr. Metz. “One of our aims was to restore green space, to make the building interact with green space.”

Critics of the plan have said that it creates a gated community. At the previous meeting, Planner Marvin Reed said that original discussions about the site with the hospital administration provided for at least two parks to be part of the development. Mr. Ladell cited safety issues with the pool that is part of the design as a reason for making the second park private. “This is the only area the public isn’t allowed into,” he said.

Mr. Reed reiterated his point. “We had a lot of discussion about open space, where residents and neighbors would intermingle,” he said. After asking the architect to show the dimensions of the public courtyard — 96 by 110 feet — he said, “There seems to be a discrepancy between my imagination and the ordinance. I thought there would be more open space. Somehow what we thought was going to happen didn’t get codified.”

Asked by Planning Board vice-chair Gail Ullman how this development differs from others that AvalonBay has built across the country, Mr. Ladell said none have courtyards and this much open space. He added that the company has not previously had an opportunity to purchase a site with an existing parking garage, which this one has.

Mr. Metz described the apartment building as 48 feet at its highest point on one side, and 32.5 feet high on the other. “In every category of the bulk zone regulations, it exceeds or complies,” he said.

Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods (PCSN), which has its own attorney and environmental consultant, has many questions and concerns about the project and AvalonBay’s resistance to hiring an independent environmental consultant.

“AvalonBay has not followed its own consultant’s recommendation for a subsurface investigation of sewer discharges, including those from the old septic system, and PCSN strongly believes that this testing should be done,” said PCSN member Alexi Assmus in an email this week. “The only soil and groundwater testing that Avalon has performed is adjacent to the five underground tanks.”