December 16, 2020

Planning Board Approves Renovation Plans for Former Packet Building

By Anne Levin

The owners of the former Princeton Packet newspaper building received unanimous approval for renovation plans from the Princeton Planning Board at the Board’s virtual meeting last Thursday.

Owner Helena May wants to convert 9,800 square feet of the site at 300 Witherspoon Street into medical offices on the first and second floors. A portion of the first floor is already occupied by home furnishings retailer Homestead Princeton, which moved there from Palmer Square a few months ago. The goal is to open the medical offices, which will be occupied by Capital Health, in the first quarter of 2021. The medical center’s Well Baby Health Clinic is planned for 7,070 square feet of the space.

The three-hour discussion that led to the Board’s vote caused postponement of a hearing to review Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart’s plans for two artificial turf playing fields. The proposal is opposed by many neighbors in the Princeton Ridge area, some 100 of whom were waiting for a chance to comment. The hearing has been rescheduled for the Planning Board’s February 4 meeting.

While some expansion is planned for 300 Witherspoon Street, there is to be no change to the footprint of the building. Because there was formerly a printing press inside, there are some elevated spaces which allow the addition of more floor area. Capital Health plans to have primary care services and same-day appointments at the site. The Hopewell-based medical center has other such satellite offices in Mercer, Burlington, and Bucks counties.

Much of the discussion centered on parking. While 133 parking spaces are required by regulations, plans for the site include only 63 spaces. Planning Board members Tim Quinn and David Cohen questioned whether that number was sufficient. Cohen said that since the site is not in a busy area where there is a lot of public transit, he wondered if 63 spaces would be enough. Since May owns some other properties that are adjacent to the building, it was suggested by Bill Wolfe, who heads the Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB), that the Board could use a mechanism called land banking, which it has in the past, in case more parking spaces are needed as time goes on. Capital Health is renting its space, meaning it could be leased by other tenants, with other parking needs, in the future.

It was suggested that the parking garage across Witherspoon Street, which used to serve the former Princeton Hospital, could be used should more parking be required. Cohen suggested waiting to see how much parking is needed before doing a traffic study. Planning Board member Louise Wilson agreed, proposing that a study be done once the building is 85 to 90 percent occupied.

May was praised by Planning Board member Mia Sacks for keeping the number of parking spaces down. “It is so remarkably refreshing to have a variance request that is for less parking as opposed to more parking,” she said, adding that the town is looking to find more ways to develop in a “smart growth pattern.” Sacks referenced the Franklin lot redevelopment, which is near the former Packet site. “The way in which the planners and community members have talked about it is very much consistent with the way you’re thinking about this site,” she said. She also commended May for installing the clinic in the building. “All around to me, this is a win-win-win in terms of addressing community needs and planning a future in Princeton which is not dominated by impervious surfaces with many parked cars,” she said.

Stuart Lieberman and Beverly Leach were among the residents who commended May for the project. Leach, who lives directly across the street from the building, called her “a wonderful neighbor, and she’s a commercial owner, not a residential one at that. She has taken her time thinking through what she wanted to see, and it was the thought of what the community would want, not just her own commercial interest.”

Approval of the plans and variances were with the understanding that May have a traffic study done once the building is at 85 percent occupancy. Should the study show that there is not enough parking, she will have to come up with alternatives, such as the parking garage across the street, to make sure there is sufficient parking.