December 12, 2012

AB Showing Rejected Plan Was Misleading; Wendy Benchley’s Fears Are Being Realized

To the Editor:

Alas! The wrong version of the 2005 Hillier concept plan for the hospital site renewal was introduced by AvalonBay at the Planning Board meeting (December 6). Jonathan Metz showed the first version of the plan, originally shown to Planning Board members on May 26, 2005. This version lacks the public walkway between Witherspoon Street and Harris Road that Mr. Hillier developed by July 14, 2005 for the Planning Board’s consideration, in response to Planning Board members’ input.

The later version [shown here] is more community-friendly. The public walkway makes directly accessible the public patio area surrounded by two-story townhouses located roughly where the private swimming pool (enclosed by the four- and 5-story box proposed by AvalonBay) would be, if the site plan were unfortunately approved.

Moreover, the later plan has additional public walkways “crossing the site” (Borough Code, 17A-193B.d.1), linking neighborhoods to the two on-site public playgrounds serving the neighborhoods, new and existing. It truly fulfills the urban renewal intent of the Master Plan and Borough Code.

It’s a shame the rejected plan was shown. It mis-educates the public. It’s also the plan that Barry Rabner, CEO UMCP, allowed to be published by BlueGate Partners, who marketed the property. Many of us wish Mr. Rabner had exercised more diligent oversight and not defaulted in his commitment to our neighborhood. As Marvin Reed, on the Planning Board, said in frustration, again (December 6), “the hospital proposed the design standards” — and then failed to hold its chosen developer to compliance.

Planning Board members (and the public) should know that Mr. Metz’s estimate of the size of Hillier’s public parks is incorrect by 10,000 square feet. Hillier offered 35,000 square feet, not 25,000 — a huge difference. Mr. Metz attempted to explain away the tiny sliver of park now offered to the Planning Board (14,990 square feet — less then HALF the 35,000 square feet proposed by Hillier and UMCP) by saying that the difference in size between the AvalonBay “park” and Hillier’s park is virtually the size of the building known as 277 Witherspoon, just sold by the hospital. This truth obscures two facts: 1) AvalonBay could have attempted to meet public and official intent (a generous public park on the Hillier scale) and chose not to; 2) AvalonBay’s sliver is surrounded on three sides by streets or driveways (Hillier’s vehicular entry was only on Henry Avenue, not also from Witherspoon).

We and the Planning Board must recall that the AvalonBay proposal embodies everything that Wendy Benchley feared most: “I was so afraid,” she said at a Borough Council meeting (May 8, 2006), “that the open space would be just a buffer around the block.” Ms. Benchley, for decades a distinguished civic leader in Princeton, was a serious student of urban design. The “buffer” of renters’ back yards that is now passed off as “publicly-accessible open space” (Jeremy Lang, for AvalonBay, December 6) along Witherspoon and Franklin is the realization of Wendy Benchley’s nightmare.

Joseph Bardzilowski

Henry Avenue