March 12, 2014

Council Tables Vote on Developer’s Agreement

A resolution to approve a developer’s agreement for AvalonBay’s plan to build rental units on the former Princeton Hospital site was tabled by Princeton Council Monday. At a meeting, the governing body decided to allow more time for consideration of comments by an independent inspector, as well as environmental and safety concerns voiced by members of the neighborhood surrounding the Witherspoon Street site.

The Council voted to retain licensed remediation professional Ira Whitman, for an amount not to exceed $3,000, allowing him to return for the next meeting on March 24. Mr. Whitman was hired to evaluate issues related to AvalonBay’s demolition plan and a medical waste incinerator that was once on the site. The developer wants to tear down the existing hospital building to make room for the rental community.

While AvalonBay has agreed to changes suggested by Mr. Whitman about soil testing and additional air monitors, some Council members and local residents were not satisfied С particularly when Council member Patrick Simon asked Mr. Whitman if he had negotiated with AvalonBay about how much sampling of the soil should be done.

Mr. Whitman admitted that he removed some of his original recommendations at AvalonBay’s request. This led Mr. Simon to say he wants to see the original, pre-negotiated draft before making a decision. The revelation about negotiations fueled some of the comments by members of the public.

“I’m shocked,” resident Joe Small admonished the Council. “You hired an expert to give you an independent report, and he didn’t do it. He negotiated.” Members of the audience applauded his remarks.

AvalonBay closed last week on the sale of the hospital, which moved nearly two years ago to Route 1 in Plainsboro. The developer plans to build 280 residential units for moderate, low-income, and very-low-income families once demolition is complete. The company’s initial proposal was rejected by Princeton’s Planning Board. A revised plan was approved last year. A group of local residents known as the Association for Planning at Hospital Site LLC sued to block the development. But Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled against them two weeks ago. The group is considering an appeal.

Mr. Whitman recommended that AvalonBay conduct more soil testing than the developer originally planned (before and during the demolition) for mercury, cadmium, dioxins, and other substances. Instead of one air monitor, he recommended installing four. There was considerable discussion about the medical waste incinerator, which was not mentioned in a report by AvalonBay’s environmental consultant EcolSciences. When the existence of the incinerator was reported in recent months, AvalonBay vice president Jon Vogel told Council it was used to burn medical records only. But it has since been confirmed that medical waste was also disposed of in the incinerator.

“My position is that there must be an environmental investigation associated with the incinerator,” Mr. Whitman said, adding that discarded needles and blood-soaked bandages are among the materials that may have been incinerated, and certain hazardous substances can be generated as a result of the process.

Mr. Whitman called the developer’s demolition proposal “overall a very good plan.” But he has concerns about the possible presence of PCB’s in concrete that is to be crushed during demolition. Illustrating with aerial photographs, Mr. Whitman said the hospital’s early buildings were constructed between 1918 and 1927. A medical waste incinerator was built between 1963 and 1969 but has not operated on the site since the 1980s or 1990s, he added.

But Areta Pawlynsky, another member of the citizens’ group, used drawings and aerial photographs to challenge Mr. Whitman about his findings. “There were at least two incinerators,” she said. “It’s on the 1948 floor plan. Why do you say there wasn’t one there until the 1960s?”

Commenting by email the following day, Ms. Pawlynsky accused the hospital, AvalonBay, and some representatives of the municipality of using a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“The fact that this was allowed to happen in the least affluent and minority neighborhood is environmental injustice,” she said. “Following in the Planning Board’s careless footsteps, Council isn’t demanding testing for heavy metal and radioactive residue from the hospital’s first 50-60 years of generating hazardous waste, before the era of environmental regulation; review of this was specifically excluded from Dr. Whitman’s scope. Yet in response to a question last night, Dr Whitman confirmed that heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and lead can’t disappear from soil. The fact that there are no plans for independent monitoring during demolition, especially for lead in an area with many children, will create a disparate environmental impact.”

Neighborhood resident Joseph Weiss told Council he thinks AvalonBay gave “false information” to the Planning Board. “The story of the incinerator, the trajectory of that story, gives me great concern,” he said. Evan Yassky of the citizens’ group urged Council to have an independent testing agency on site during demolition, adding, “Hospital: Please come clean and tell us now whatever is in the soil, so we can remediate.”


At the end of the meeting, Council got a progress report from Robert Hough, director of Infrastructure and Operations, about repairs to potholes caused by repeated snowstorms and frigid weather this winter. Mr. Hough recommended an $800,000 plan to repave some of the roads that are in particularly bad shape. Normally, the municipality spends $300,000 on such repairs.

The town has been doing cold-patching on area roads, but Mr. Hough said that practice is a “band-aid” that only provides a temporary solution. Sections of Harrison Street, Mercer Road, Elm Road, Quaker Road, Mount Lucas, and Terhune roads have been the most seriously affected. “My fear is that this is only the beginning,” Mr. Hough said. “We have people out every day. We’ve got other areas to do. We need to do it right.”