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Hospital Hearing Set for Thursday

Matthew Hersh

Municipal planning officials outlined a process last week aimed toward accommodating future development on the 12-acre site currently occupied by the University Medical Center at Princeton.

The hospital, whose trustees voted in January to relocate its main campus within two to six miles of its current location, is expected to announce a site for its intended future home within the next few months. UMCP President and CEO Barry Rabner has said that a new facility could be built and operational within six years.

In the meantime, Princeton Borough's and Township's governing bodies, zoning boards, and the Princeton Regional Planning Board, with public input, are left with the task of rezoning that site to make it suitable for a future occupant; it is likely to be transformed into some sort of residential area.

The UMCP campus, which straddles the municipal border between the Borough and Township, is zoned strictly for hospitals in the Borough's HMC zone and the Township's H-2 zone, which allows for related medical usage. The UMCP garage falls within the Township's R-8 zone.

"There will obviously have to be a change," said Wanda Gunning, chair of the Princeton Regional Planning Board, whose role is to review the Princeton Community Master Plan, and to recommend possible changes to the current zoning code.

Ms. Gunning encouraged "the entire community" to take part in a series of hearings that will examine future possible uses of the site, and the "key issues" involved in the process; the meetings are meant to anticipate the impact of possible uses to the site by weighing in on density, intensity of development, traffic, and the presence of affordable housing. Ms. Gunning said that there was a general interest as well in improving the streetscape and developing some of the space in line with the scale of the surrounding neighborhoods.

To date, hearings are scheduled for April 21, May 26, and June 16, all to be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Township Municipal Complex.

Members of the Planning Board have set July 14 as the date by which they would like to have parameters set for a Master Plan amendment to guide the direction of any changes in zoning, Ms. Gunning said. After that, Master Plan hearings will be scheduled sometime after August. The meetings will be open to the public.

Those parameters could take "several forms," as actual draft amendments, or simply as criteria for drafting amendments, according to Planning Director Lee Solow.

Planning Board member Marvin Reed, who chaired the now-dissolved Princeton Health Care Task Force that made recommendations based on the objectives put forth in the UMCP strategic plan, said that there should be a "pretty clear indication by July as to how the Master Plan is to be amended." He said this would be necessary so that UMCP has an idea as to how they can market their land for sale. Developers interested in the land would logically need to know for what use the land is zoned before arranging any monetary offers.

While members of the Planning Board indicated that it was unlikely that any Master Plan amendments could be passed before the fall, Mr. Reed said he would like to see changee sooner, rather than later.

"I think we ought to try to get [it] adopted by July if we possibly can ‹ now maybe I'm disagreeing with the other members of the Planning Board, but we can't just say we're going to have a draft and then have the hearing and public comment in the fall," he said, adding that a lull in decision-making could leave developers "unsure" as to how realistic redevelopment could be. The Planning Board also indicated that it would move with a steady pace on the process, attempting to avert the undesirable possibility of having the hospital move and leave vacant buildings on the site.

Peter Madison, Township Vice-Chair of the Planning Board, said that while the impact of future development on the immediate hospital neighborhood will be considered, the impact on the entire community will have to be weighed as well.

The format of the hearings promises to be a continuation of Mr. Reed's presentations on the findings of the aforementioned Task Force. In those presentations to Borough Council, Township Committee, the Planning Board, and the Planning Board's Master Plan Sub-Committee, he outlined all of the likely scenarios as to what could become of that city block, from student and senior housing or mixed use commercial/residential development covering a range of types and sizes of housing. He also mentioned the potential need for affordable housing.

In these upcoming hearings, Mr. Reed said that he intends to offer more detailed scenarios regarding the considerations the Planning Board needs to make when looking at which portions of the property are re-usable and which are likely to be replaced or removed.

However, not wishing to underestimate the task at hand, Mr. Reed agreed that the entire process looks to be a challenge to the community and those involved in the planning process. "This is really big," he said.

As for the possibility of the hospital not being able to leave when intended, Mr. Reed and Mr. Solow said the Planning Board would not take that into consideration yet, and that preparations need to be made for the hospital's anticipated departure. "They've said they want to leave, and they're going to, so that's where we are at this point," Mr. Solow said.

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