January 30, 2013

Task Force Discusses Density, Affordable Housing

Would it be preferable to reduce the number of units allowed in the redevelopment of the former hospital site on Witherspoon Street? This was the topic of debate last week at the third meeting of the special task force charged with refining the zoning of the 5.6-acre property, the future of which is still to be determined.

The task force will next meet on Thursday, January 31 to further discuss the zoning, which was created several years before the hospital moved last May. Under the current ordinance, 280 units, with 54 designated for affordable housing, are allowed. At the January 24 meeting, some members of the task force said that lowering the number of units, perhaps to 220, would be preferable.

But municipal attorney Ed Schmierer told the group that as density falls, it will be more difficult to keep the requirement for 20 percent affordable units because a developer will have trouble subsidizing them. “There is a consequence to reducing the density,” he said.

The developer AvalonBay was under contract to develop the site with a complex of rental apartments, but the Regional Planning Board voted not to approve the plan last month. The planners have yet to formally memorialize the action. Once they do, AvalonBay has 45 days to file a court appeal of the decision. The developer’s attorney Anne Studholme attended the January 24 meeting but did not comment on whether AvalonBay would appeal.

A plea to keep the density high came from resident David Keddie, who said there are not enough affordable rentals in Princeton. “It’s an opportunity, not a threat,” he said. “There is tremendous demand for it.”

Mr. Keddie added that people who work or study at Princeton University want to live where they can walk to the campus. “If I lived where the current hospital site is, I’d walk instead of driving,” he said. “My wife would walk to the Dinky instead of driving to the Hamilton train station so she could find parking. This is good from an environmental perspective, and many singles and childless couples prefer the lifestyle at an apartment complex. A large population would make the area lively.”

Mr. Keddie’s comments drew an endorsement from Sheldon Sturges of the organization Princeton Future. “Most of us sitting here have gray hair,” he said. “We bought in when it was a lot cheaper in Princeton. We need housing for potters, jazz musicians, and artists. We need to work a lot harder at keeping the unit count up in the area. We ought to have a plan, not just for this zone.”

Resident Hendricks Davis commented that he is concerned about the loss of affordable housing that could result from density reduction. “The task force needs to be very careful and thoughtful in its rationale for changing the density for this site,” he said.

“I listened to the comments at planning board meetings and the proposal by the current developer. I think that a more sensitive developer could achieve the 56 affordable units along with a sensitive, thoughtful, creative residential development of this site, and commercial or small business, as well as open space. I would encourage the task force and planning board to be very thoughtful about changing the density so radically.”

Former Township Mayor Marvin Reed, who is on the Planning Board, was among the task force members who spoke in favor of reducing the density. “It took me 12 years to get Palmer Square to cover up the ugly garages they had built and suspend any further construction,” he said. “I’m not going to be around for 12 more years to try and convince the hospital to tear down this building. So I think we have to recognize we have a special interest in convincing them that they should not leave the hospital they have left, and that something needs to take its place.”

Representatives from the hospital said at previous meetings that the 20 percent affordable housing requirement scared away most of the developers who had expressed interest in the site. But task force members said they won’t alter that requirement. At the January 24 meeting, hospital attorney Mark Solomon said he has major concerns about the progress of the zoning talks.

“At the first meeting, I said to please be sure that [the plan] works,” he said. “I have serious doubts that it works when you put together the open space changes, the setbacks, and everything else. When it’s all done, what do you have? We spent years discussing the density that belongs here. This is a 100-or-200-year opportunity you have here and you are squandering the opportunity.”

The meeting also focused on the question of whether retail stores are appropriate for the site, and possible amendments to the maximum allowable height of the buildings. AvalonBay had proposed a four-to-five story building approximately 48 feet high. The current zoning says the height should not exceed five stories, or 67.5 feet.

Open space allowances were also discussed. Task force member Bill Wolfe said publicly accessible open space should make up 30 percent of the land area. Mr. Sturges suggested that open space should be surrounded by retail, as in the Princeton Public Library’s Hinds Plaza. “There are a lot of open spaces in this town that are deader than a doornail,” he commented.

Once the task force presents its recommended zoning changes to the Princeton Council, that body will review them and then pass them on to the Planning Board. The changes would then be sent back to the Council for official approval.

The task force will meet at the Municipal Building Thursday, January 31 at 5 p.m. Further meetings are scheduled for February 5 at noon at the former Borough Hall, and February 11 at noon back at the Municipal Building. The meetings are open to the public.