December 26, 2012

Planning Board Rejects AvalonBay Plan For Hospital Site

After a five-hour meeting that began December 19 and ended in the wee hours of December 20, Princeton’s Regional Planning Board voted against developer AvalonBay’s plan for a rental community on the former site of the University Medical Center of Princeton. The vote was 7-3, with those who voted in favor saying they did so because they feared the legal repercussions of rejecting the plan. Residents in the audience who were against the proposed development rose to their feet to give the Board a standing ovation when the vote was finally cast.

The developer’s proposal for 280 apartments, 56 of which would be affordable housing, has drawn criticism from residents of the neighborhood about a design they repeatedly called “monolithic,” and concerns about environmental issues. The group Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods was represented by two lawyers during the process. The December 19 meeting of the Planning Board was the sixth devoted to the proposal.

While one member of the public expressed support for the complex because of its percentage of affordable housing units, the comments at the meeting were overwhelmingly negative. “It’s completely out of scale with the adjacent neighborhoods,” said Joseph Weiss during a power point presentation, calling the design “a fortress.”

Princeton Borough resident Helmut Schwab said he had spoken to many people in town, most of whom were against the plan. “I plead with you. Do what is good for the citizens and vote against it or recuse yourself,” he said to the Board. Julie Roth, the rabbi for Princeton University, said there have been inconsistencies in AvalonBay’s plan. “The question is whether we have a good faith partner in AvalonBay,” she said.

Zoning for the hospital site was approved several years ago. The original developer for the site, Lubert Adler, had planned to turn the existing hospital building into condominiums with retail underneath. But the company withdrew during the 2008 recession. Planning Board member Marvin Reed, who was in the negotiations from the beginning, said the Board owed it to the neighborhood residents to reject AvalonBay’s plan because of their concerns about the design for a newly constructed complex, among other issues.

Weighing in before the vote, Planning Board member Peter Madison, a lawyer, explained his decision to vote in favor of the plan. “I have a serious concern that the applicant is in a very strong legal position,” he said. “I believe if they appeal, the case will be overturned.”

Board member Bernie Miller commented, “The question isn’t really whether there could be something better on the site, but whether we want what is proposed on the site. I have heard a lot that troubles me. It leaves me with a kind of queasy feeling of having been taken advantage of with a bait and switch here.”

During the process that began more than a year ago, AvalonBay senior vice president Ron Ladell met with an ad hoc committee to try and work out problems that neighborhood residents had with the plan. But those meetings were not successful, according to Jenny Crumiller, a member of the Planning Board who served on the committee. “It was their intent to do things the AvalonBay way, not the Princeton way,” she said. “They tweaked a bit, but they did not change it much. They are refusing to stray from their brand and realize Princeton’s uniqueness. We have standards to protect our old-fashioned neighborhoods. The overriding theme was that AvalonBay is a brand, and that’s what you get.”

The proposal called for one, two, and three bedroom apartments in a building that would reach 48 feet at its highest point. Mr. Ladell said he was offended by suggestions that he was hiding something. In his closing speech to the Board before the vote, he said that planning and zoning staff agree that the project met all local zoning requirements. “If you don’t believe me, believe your staff,” he said.

Mr. Ladell left the meeting without commenting. Efforts to reach his attorney, Anne Studholme, in the days following the meeting were unsuccessful. The University Medical Center of Princeton issued a general statement: “Princeton HealthCare System has been watching the site plan process closely. We have always advocated that the process should be allowed to occur. This part of the process is now finished. AvalonBay will need to make a decision on how it intends to proceed. We have confidence that in the end, the process will result in an appropriate outcome for the community.”