April 10, 2013

Planners Approve AvalonBay Settlement

The Princeton Planning Board’s vote last Thursday to approve a settlement with AvalonBay allows the developer to submit a revised application for building rental units at the site of the former Princeton hospital. It also avoids the lawsuit that AvalonBay filed against the town and the Planning Board last February for denying its application.

Under the agreement, the developer will submit its revised plans by mid-May. Reviews by the Planning Board and public hearings will follow in late June and July, and the final decision on the controversial complex could come by August 15.

The settlement was reached following a series of four quietly held meetings between members of Princeton Council, the Planning Board, the Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB), the Princeton Environmental Commission, and others, with representatives from AvalonBay.

“I would say they were constructive meetings,” said Bernie Miller, this week. Mr. Miller is the Council member who chaired a task force on rezoning the hospital site. “We both had the same objective С to find some middle ground to permit AvalonBay to realize what they consider the economics of the site, and to get a development that comes close to meeting the requirements of the community.”

AvalonBay’s proposal to tear down the hospital building and construct 280 rental units, 56 of which would be affordable housing, was voted down last December by the Planning Board after much protest about the plan from members of the public, specifically members of the group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods (PCSN). The developer’s redesigned plans are said to include some townhouses and two large buildings, in response to repeated complaints that the original design was “monolithic.”

Members of PCSN and other residents have argued that the original plan’s scale and scope were out of place with the surrounding neighborhood. Environmental concerns were also raised. The task force headed by Mr. Miller recommended reducing the density of the project, but Mayor Liz Lempert and some members of Council said that the number of apartments should be maintained at 280.

The new plan would add a roadway with sidewalks through the site. The buildings that would run along Witherspoon Street would be the tallest. An open park would be placed at Witherspoon and Franklin Avenue, replacing the original plan for open space only in the center of the development. The pool, which many complained about because of the site’s proximity to the recently refurbished Community Pool, remains part of the plan, but is smaller than originally designed.

Under the complaint filed by AvalonBay in February, the developer has said it would walk away from the project, backing out of its contract to buy the property from Princeton HealthCare System, if the Planning Board’s decision was not reversed by May 1. The settlement reached between the Planning Board and AvalonBay last week was a consent agreement, which is a document that says one party will cease its contested actions so that a lawsuit can be resolved. This type of agreement allows a case to be settled without having to wait for a court judgment.

Mr. Miller said he is more optimistic about reaching a satisfactory conclusion than he was in the past. “It’s a negotiation,” he said. “Like any negotiation, it’s very fragile. There is no guarantee that it will reach a successful conclusion. If we do, in terms of agreement on a process, then litigation would be put on hold as far as AvalonBay and the municipality is concerned.”