January 23, 2013

Task Force Discussing Fate of Hospital Site

Princeton residents with suggestions for the future of the former hospital site on Witherspoon Street have one more chance to contribute their suggestions. Thursday at noon, the special task force formed by Princeton Council to study the zoning of the property will hold their third and final meeting before returning their findings to Princeton Council. As with the previous two meetings, held in the Municipal Building, public comment is invited.

It remains to be seen whether AvalonBay Communities, the developer that was denied approval of its plan for the site, intends to file an appeal to that decision made last month by the Regional Planning Board. The Board must formally adopt, or memorialize, the decision, after which the developer has 45 days in which to appeal in court.

In the meantime, the task force has begun preparing for the future of the site, whether with AvalonBay or without. Last week, the nine-member committee held the first of three meetings on the property’s zoning, which they hope will result in a recommendation to be presented to Council at its January 28 meeting or, at the latest, in February.

“It’s not that we feel that the current ordinance is deficient or inadequate,” task force chairman Bernie Miller told the group. “But this is an opportunity for us to bring a new perspective. We had done this when we were two communities. We are one community now.”

AvalonBay’s plan was to tear down the existing hospital building and construct a rental community of 280 units, 20 percent of which were to be set aside as affordable housing. The Planning Board voted 7-3 to deny the plan after listening to many residents criticize the proposal for its size, scope, and environmental impact, among other things.

Mr. Miller began an overview of the current zoning with an eye toward preparing a single ordinance for the entire site. Task force members were in agreement about recommending that a swimming pool not be permitted at the site. There was discussion as well about making sure the zoning does not allow for a gated community, but Planning Director Lee Solow cautioned the group to be careful about their wording.

“I understand the concern, but if you say no gated community, they will ask, where’s the gate,” he said. “There isn’t an actual gate [on the AvalonBay plan].”

Representing the hospital, attorney Mark Solomon and Vice President For Government and Community Affairs Pam Hersh each spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Because of a declining market, the site is now worth about half of its initial value, Mr. Solomon said.

He questioned the task force as to why there was a rush to get the rezoning completed. “I know you want to move quickly. But however quickly you move, we would like you to get it right,” he said, adding that the hospital will have to go back to the marketplace should AvalonBay decline to appeal. “Obviously our desire is to retain value, and whatever comes out of your work is buildable. I don’t see us showing up tomorrow with a new buyer and a new plan.”

Since the Planning Board denied AvalonBay approval last month, the organization Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods has undertaken its own study of how work on the ordinances should proceed. The group has gotten advice from urban planner Peter Steck, according to member Alexi Assmus.

“We want to make sure we don’t have the kind of plan that AvalonBay presented,” Ms. Assmus said. “We’re defining what a closed private community is and disallowing it, looking at height and setback restrictions, and adding a list of green construction requirements to the ordinance. And our environmental attorney had drafted a site investigation section calling for a preliminary assessment of the site before site plan approval, which would require more than was done in phase one and two.”

The group will submit its recommendations for a full ordinance to the task force, Ms. Assmus said.

Should AvalonBay appeal the Planning Board’s decision and prevail, the developer can build a rental community under the existing ordinance. Once the task force decides on any changes to the ordinance, they will be introduced by Princeton Council, voted on by the Planning Board, and then sent back to the Council for a final vote.