Though the town of Princeton is currently being sued by developer AvalonBay over issues regarding the developer’s agreement to demolish the former Princeton Hospital site, work has been proceeding to prepare the Witherspoon Street property for the time when and if the developer signs off on the project.
In the meantime, the municipality held a neighborhood meeting Monday evening to keep residents informed about what that preliminary work entails and what environmental testing so far has revealed. AvalonBay wants to demolish the old hospital structure and build a 280-unit rental community at the site. The additional environmental sampling that the town is requiring of the company is what has them in court.
Mayor Liz Lempert told the approximately 60 people in attendance at Witherspoon Hall that a second meeting will be held if and when the agreement is signed, and before demolition begins. She was joined by several municipal staff members, as well as Ira Whitman and Kevin Lovely, environmental consultants who have been hired to monitor the work at the site. Representatives from AvalonBay did not attend, but attorney Anne Studholme, who has represented the developer, was in the audience.
Recent environmental issues that have been discovered at the site added fuel to concerns by several residents about health and safety, not only for those in surrounding homes but also for workers on the project. Harris Road resident Areta Pawlynsky, an architect, said the current work that is being done is not just recycling, as municipal staff members have said. “This is demolition,” she said, asking for more air monitoring during asbestos and lead paint removal.
Work at the site during recent weeks has included removal of asbestos, floor materials, ceiling tiles, metal, ballast, and other items that don’t require the developer’s agreement. The excavation of six underground fuel storage tanks began last month, and a soil sample by AvalonBay’s environmental consultants, EcolSciences, showed a discharge of petroleum above the acceptable threshold level, said Mr. Whitman. “It was from 30 or 40 years ago,” he said, adding that more testing will be done. An odor detected in the soil around the old heating oil tank between the hospital’s emergency room and parking garage resulted in notification of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
“The contaminated soil will be removed and none will be re-used,” Mr. Whitman said. “The types of chemicals in that oil normally do not volatilize into the air. It’s not the type of contaminant that widely distributes itself into the environment. It’s now in the hands of the DEP.”
Nearly all of the residents who lined up to ask questions expressed their thanks to the municipality and staff for holding the meeting. Minnie Craig asked whether the outcome of the lawsuit could result in AvalonBay deciding not to include affordable units in the rental community. Mayor Lempert explained that it could not. Former Princeton Township Mayor Jim Floyd asked if any local workers are involved in the asbestos removal. “Local people are not involved in that,” answered the town’s director of engineering Bob Kiser. “They are doing things that are not hazardous.”
There were several questions about monitoring of the work being done at the site. The town’s construction official John Pettenati said that he, along with building and plumbing inspectors, are there on a daily basis, but can only look for code compliance issues. The Whitman company has the ability to look further into issues, he said.
Resident Michael Floyd asked if anyone knew which way groundwater would be flowing and whether it would be affected by the fuel leak. Mr. Whitman said a groundwater monitoring well would be installed to determine whether the chemical had entered the water. “If yes, they may install an additional well. It’s a heavy, gunky type of oil that most likely did not dissolve into the groundwater, but it remains to be seen whether it has,” he said.
So far, one container filled with asbestos has been removed from the site, residents were told. In response to a question from Linda Auerbach about how often state inspectors are visiting the site during this part of the project, Mr. Lovely said that officials from the New Jersey Department of Labor appear “whenever they want,” but on an average of once a week. “AvalonBay doesn’t know when they’re coming. I don’t even know when they’re coming,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
Mr. Whitman urged residents to continue to keep an eye on the site. “If you see something, say something,” he said, quoting the well-known slogan by the Department of Homeland Security. “The engineering department is very responsive and concerned.”
Mr. Kiser said the removal of asbestos could take another two months, while the removal of other material such as copper pipe will require two more weeks. Demolition, should the agreement be signed, could conceivably begin as soon as all of that work is completed.