To the Editor:
Princeton Hospital (Princeton HealthCare System, PHCS) must honor and fulfill its commitments to Princeton and the Witherspoon neighborhood, which it leaves behind next week.
So far it has not done so. Hospital representatives, including Barry Rabner (now CEO of PHCS), participated in two years of discussion with the Witherspoon community and the municipal Task Force — and arrived at a consensus for a “unique opportunity” to recreate the vacated acreage: 280 apartments in exchange for specific design standards, a large public plaza (like Hinds), public passage “crossing the site,” and development in physical scale with the neighborhood.
PHCS has unaccountably selected a buyer, AvalonBay (AB), which has so far refused to acknowledge the 2006 Master Plan and Borough Code Design Standards in which that consensus was embodied. True, the AvalonBay monolith (two squares side-by-side, uniformly five stories high) is permitted by “Bulk Regulations” in the Borough Code. But did PHCS perform due diligence in selecting a buyer who would agree to honor the hospital’s commitment to neighborhood revitalization? Why not?
The selling price for the property, reputed to be $36 million, was only $4 million higher than another bid from a qualified, distinguished developer who takes pride in customized architecture that fits the environment. For $4 million less, PHCS could have had good design and maintained its good faith agreements with Princeton. No one tosses off $4 million. But that $4 million is less than one percent of the hospital’s total costs for moving to Plainsboro and building a new facility ($537 million, as reported in Town Topics). For less than one percent, PHCS could have given Princeton what they agreed to foster: a socially smart and architecturally sensitive neighborhood building, not the “gated community,” explicitly prohibited in the Master Plan, that we are in great danger of getting.
It is time for PHCS, at the highest levels of administration, to step forward and inform AvalonBay of commitments that must be observed. Yes, Princeton values the hospital that has served our community since 1919, and we applaud the effort expended in creating the new health campus. But not at any price shall we value PHCS any longer if it does not actively push AvalonBay to propose excellent, not mediocre, designs that serve the neighborhood. Greater Princeton contributed over $100 million to the new hospital site: so far, in return, we have been abandoned.
Last week an overnight letter was sent to Mr. Rabner and all 35 PHCS trustees, from Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods. The letter expresses a sense of real betrayal because the hospital is selling its buildings to a conventional developer apparently lacking capabilities to customize development to specific needs.
Online, all Princeton residents are invited to sign a petition requesting PHCS to intervene: go to www.change.org and type in (beside “Browse Petitions,” at top) “To the University Medical Center at Princeton.”
Princeton is special, the Witherspoon area is vital to Princeton, the Master Plan is specific in its guidelines for rebuilding. The hospital has no excuse. We are disbelieving and angry.
To the Editor:
The hospital (the University Medical Center) has an important moral responsibility to the Princeton community. Unfortunately, the hospital is not living up to it.
The hospital’s moral responsibility dates to 2004-06, when the hospital, Princeton Borough, and the neighborhood surrounding the hospital’s Witherspoon Street site had lengthy negotiations about what could be built on the site when the hospital vacated it. The goal was to make the site attractive to potential buyers so that the hospital could get a good price for it, while still safeguarding the neighborhood. The neighborhood and the Borough made great concessions — among them, much higher density than any other site in Princeton, and the retention of two seven-story buildings. The hospital agreed, among other things, to include a public park, walkways crossing the site, and mixed retail and office use.
Unfortunately, the Borough did not codify these agreements in a way that is legally enforceable. Perhaps Borough officials didn’t think this was necessary, since they were dealing in good faith with the hospital — a fine, honorable institution.
But now the hospital has tentatively decided to sell the site to AvalonBay, which has shown total disregard for the agreements. Indeed, AvalonBay’s previous developments demonstrate that it is probably incapable of building the kind of development envisioned in the agreements.
Why did the hospital choose AvalonBay? We can only guess. Perhaps it forgot about its agreements and simply chose the highest bidder. AvalonBay reportedly bid $36 million. A very reputable builder who would most likely adhere to the agreements bid $32 million. The $4 million difference may sound large, but in fact it is less than 1 percent of the $527 million that the new hospital will cost.
Barry Rabner (the hospital’s CEO) and the hospital’s trustees need to demonstrate to the Princeton community that of course they recognize the hospital’s moral responsibility and will adhere to the agreements, whatever the legal situation. They should withdraw their tentative acceptance of AvalonBay’s bid. They should sell instead to a buyer who will support them in living up to their moral responsibility to Princeton. And they should work with the new buyer, as it goes through the approval process, to make certain that all of their agreements with the Borough and the neighborhood are kept.