July 31, 2013

Planning Board Approves AvalonBay’s Plan B

In an 8-1 vote, Princeton’s Planning Board approved the revised plan that AvalonBay has proposed for the former site of the University Medical Center at Princeton. While none of the Board members professed to favor every aspect of the proposal last Thursday evening, each praised the developer for its efforts to accommodate residents’ concerns about size, permeability, sustainability, and design.

“I think this final design is a much improved design,” said former Princeton Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman, a member of the Board and a resident of the neighborhood where the 280-unit rental complex will be built. “The applicant has agreed to change some things, particularly the distribution of affordable housing, and has added very low income housing. And the fact that they will give consideration for adding a generator is important.”

“You listened to us,” said Board member Gail Ullman. “I don’t love everything about it, but you really did meet us halfway and I’m pleased to be a part of the approval of this application.”

It was in December 2012 that the Planning Board voted to reject AvalonBay’s proposal after numerous complaints and objections from neighborhood residents, particularly those who were members of the organization Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods (PCSN). The developer sued the Board and the municipality, and then approached the town about reaching an agreement. By May, Plan B was ready for a presentation to the community at Community Park School. Four special hearings in front of the Board began in late June. The final one, at which the vote was cast, was held last Thursday.

In a statement on Friday, AvalonBay’s Vice President for Development Jon Vogel said he is pleased that the company can now move forward “with a project that will transform the former Princeton University Medical Center into a much-needed multifamily apartment homes that will be well integrated into the Princeton community.”

Several modifications were included among AvalonBay’s concessions to local residents’ requests and the -recommendations of Princeton’s zoning and environmental commissions. The 56 affordable units in the complex will be dispersed throughout, with 13 percent devoted to those of very low income. The 56 affordable apartments at the complex will range in price from $310 for a studio, for very low income; to $1,088 for a three-bedroom unit, for moderate income.

In response to complaints that the original design was for one “monolithic” building, the development now promises two large buildings and three smaller townhouse clusters. A public park at the site has been enlarged. The developer has made a $70,000 contribution to the Arts Council of Princeton for the acquisition of artworks that will be placed throughout the complex.

“We have made numerous modifications,” said AvalonBay’s lawyer Robert Kasuba. “I think that is obvious to anyone who has looked.”

During the 17-month process, members of PCSN were particularly vocal in their objections to some aspects of AvalonBay’s proposal. But the group formally withdrew its opposition to the plan because of the expenses incurred for the services of an environmental attorney. In a statement on Friday, the group’s trustees acknowledged the efforts of its supporters.

“We want to thank the hundreds of citizens who were catalyzed to research, consult, speak at public hearings, write to the press, and donate funds,” the trustees said. “PCSN, together with community pressure, gained us Plan B: five buildings (not one), which include two large buildings and three townhouse buildings on Franklin Avenue. A new private drive connecting Henry Avenue to Franklin with a semi-public piazza, adds permeability to Plan B, and the pocket park that was moved to the corner of Witherspoon and Franklin.”

Mr. Vogel also thanked residents and government officials, “for keeping an open mind during this entire process and allowing AvalonBay to listen and respond to local sentiments,” he said.

Board member Cecelia Birge cast the lone vote against the proposal. “It’s a tough vote for me. Generally I’m a person who likes to say yes. But I can’t vote for it,” she said, citing concerns about preserving the character of the town and respecting the environment.