April 9, 2014

AvalonBay Balks at Revised Agreement

At a meeting Monday night, Princeton Council unanimously approved a developer’s agreement for the construction of rental apartments on the former site of Princeton Hospital. But despite appeals from Mayor Liz Lempert and members of the governing body, the attorney for AvalonBay, developer of the 280-unit complex, said the company will not agree to the additional environmental testing laid out in the developer’s agreement.

“AvalonBay will do the testing required by state regulations and nothing more,” said Robert Kasuba, the developer’s lawyer. “I can’t be more clear about that.”

The impasse could result in AvalonBay taking the municipality to court again. “If there is a court proceeding, we have an expert we’ve employed to give us this advice,” said Princeton administrator Bob Bruschi at a press conference earlier in the day. AvalonBay vice presidents Ron Ladell and Jon Vogel, both of whom attended the Council meeting, declined to comment following the vote.

Residents of the neighborhood surrounding the Witherspoon Street site have raised numerous concerns about how demolition of the old hospital building will be carried out. The discovery of a former waste incinerator on the property, by resident Jan Weinberg, which neither the hospital nor AvalonBay had reported, was particularly disturbing to residents. In February, Council voted to hire licensed state remediation professional Ira Whitman to independently evaluate how much testing should be done at the site.

Mr. Whitman’s first recommendations were delivered to Council March 10, but drew criticism after it was revealed he had negotiated with AvalonBay. Following further discussions with municipal officials, professionals, members of the community through the municipal engineer’s office, and environmental consultants for AvalonBay, he revised the report to recommend more sampling relative to the medical waste incinerator, soil reuse areas; and beneath drains, sewers, septic tank components, and concrete that is crushed on site.

Since asbestos and underground storage are monitored by the state, and air pollution from lead paint comes under federal jurisdiction, Mr. Whitman did not make recommendations on those issues. The revised agreement is “similar to what I recommended at the March 10 meeting,” he said, “but the scope of the chemical analysis is somewhat broadened.”

The final demolition plan still needs to be approved by the municipal staff. Removal of interior carpeting, doors, and other features has been ongoing at the building. Demolition could start within three weeks of the removal of asbestos. Mr. Kasuba said the developer’s plan is to work on the property one building at a time, removing asbestos before taking down each structure.

Members of the public aired concerns about chemicals, airborne pollutants, noise, and other issues at the meeting. Resident Paul Driscoll told Council he has filed Open Public Records Act requests three times to see the original report, but was declined. Municipal attorney Trishka Cecil said that because the report was a draft, it is not subject to the public records act.

Before voting, members of Council expressed their support for the revised report. “I find it disappointing because it appears we are headed toward an impasse,” said Heather Howard. Council president Bernie Miller said Council’s responsibility is to protect the health and safety of the community. “We undertook to do that by bringing in a consultant. I think we have no alternative but to accept,” he said.

Lance Liverman said he was hoping AvalonBay would have “come to the table and said, ‘We don’t have to do this, but we’re going to do it.’ When I have children from Community Park School come up to me and ask if they’re going to be safe, we have a problem. We need more testing.” Appealing to the developer, Mayor Lempert said, “We look out for each other here. We listen to the neighbors and do the right thing. I hope you’ll reconsider.”