May 8, 2013

Harris Road Residents Outline History Of Hospital’s Redevelopment of Site

To the Editor:

What is our community hospital’s role in the redevelopment of its old facility in the heart of Princeton?

Harris Road’s long-term residents put down roots close to a small hospital built on donated land. As the hospital transformed itself from a local institution into a regional medical center, it had to confront the physical reality of not being able to fulfill its aspirations in the available space in town. We should recall that our hospital came to this conclusion only after its proposal to tear down the houses on the west side of Harris was rejected.

Despite many years of flexibility and accommodation by Princeton, the hospital continues to opt for financial return at the cost of the community’s well-being. Harris Road residents challenge the hospital to hold its current or future developer to a substantially higher set of standards than those accepted when selecting AvalonBay, which led to last year’s ill-fated and time-consuming submission.

Let us recall some recent history. Beginning in 2004, the hospital and the town’s stakeholders engaged in a public series of meetings facilitated by Princeton Future. In May 2005, six distinct concepts for new construction were presented to the Planning Board in easy-to-understand 3-D drawings. Only one of these concepts permitted continued office use at the northwest corner. None kept the garage.

Rather than follow any of these concepts, the hospital hired Robert Hillier [a Town Topics shareholder] to develop a scheme for the “adaptive reuse” of the hulking buildings that included residential and retail elements. The town’s officials, with the Hillier scheme in mind, then enshrined a new set of density standards into an ordinance that raised the allowable density up to four times more than previously allowed in the John Witherspoon neighborhood and 10 times more than the adjacent neighborhood to the northeast. And although these higher density standards were written into the 2006 MRRO Zone Ordinance with only the “adaptive reuse” of the existing structures intended, the ordinance’s density standards were applied to new construction.

The hospital’s success in reverse-engineering from reuse of large towers to new construction yielded a very different and highly undesirable scheme last year. Having benefited from our community’s longstanding support, isn’t it time for the hospital to give priority to humane and environmentally-friendly design with community engagement rather than profit?

Time magazine’s cover story of March 14, 2013, entitled “Bitter Pill”, describes the reality we are now living in Princeton: “[t]he American health care market has transformed tax-exempt ‘nonprofit’ hospitals into the towns’ most profitable businesses and largest employers, often presided over by the regions’ most richly compensated executives.” Our hospital is a nonprofit that “ranks among the top 5 percent in New Jersey in excess revenue” as advertised when CEO Barry Rabner addressed the Princeton Chamber of Commerce last month.

Last week brought news of a future unveiling of revisions to AvalonBay’s rejected 2012 scheme. The hospital still owns this land. How engaged is it in improving the scheme? Or is it only interested in the site’s price-tag?

Janet and Gareth Williams, Eric and Sue Ellen Johnson, Xiao and Jaipeng Hua, John J. Pesce, Umberto Perna, Dan Shea, Kate Norton, Marilyn Besner, Fred Appel,

Areta Pawlynsky, Yaron Inbar

Harris Road