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Planning Board Eyes Potential Hospital Zoning

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Regional Planning Board members Tuesday began exploring ideas on how to handle future zoning changes on the 12 acres of land that straddles the Borough and Township municipal line and currently houses the University Medical Center at Princeton.

The session, hosted by the Master Plan Subcommittee of the Planning Board, was meant to examine where the Princeton HealthCare System, the parent entity of the UMCP, was in its planning stages, and to align rezoning as hospital development plans progress.

In January, PHCS trustees voted to pursue relocation efforts for the hospital. That decision process was concurrent with public forums held by the independent Princeton Heath Care Task Force, which was assembled to explore the possibilities of both hospital onsite expansion, and, if relocated, future use of the hospital site.

The task force, which comprises various municipal officials, offered a set of 10 recommendations to the Planning Board ranging from what type of mixed-use housing structures would work best onsite, to expansion recommendations if the hospital proves to be unsuccessful in its relocation efforts.

Regardless of the hospital's status, the task force has recommended an immediate change in zoning that would permit a maximum 35,000-square-foot expansion onsite to cater to immediate UMCP needs, such as improvements to the clinical lab. The hospital has about 4,000 remaining square feet of allowable, buildable space on which it can expand under present zoning mandates. How much is built onsite, PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner said, is largely contingent on how quickly new land within two and six miles of its current site is acquired. Giving an "optimistic" forecast of a relocation occurring in five years, Mr. Rabner stopped just short of saying that, in the meantime, there might not be a need to expand more than what is already allowed for under current zoning.

The as-yet-unanswered questions the hospital faces could be addressed as early as July, Mr. Rabner said. Factors included acquisition of a new site, how much money can be made from the sale of the UMCP and Merwick sites, how much money can be raised through philanthropy, and how much can be borrowed. PHCS officials have indicated that a new hospital campus would carry an approximate $250 million price tag.

The task of the municipal zoning boards is how to rezone the land that accommodates both temporary onsite improvements, and changes that would make the site attractive to suitors looking to acquire the land. Currently, the UMCP area is zoned specifically for hospitals. The Merwick site is zoned residential. Mr. Rabner said that, regardless of the final location of the hospital, be it onsite or somewhere outside of town, PHCS would look to sell the Merwick site and rebuild that facility elsewhere.

Marvin Reed, chairman of the task force and member of the Planning Board, expressed the importance of keeping abreast of the hospital's status because the sites will need to be rezoned. The task force recommended that housing be the main component of any future development at the two sites, be it student, affordable, mixed-use, or otherwise. Additionally, the task force recommended that any future development should be tax-paying. The hospital, a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit charitable organization, is not required by state law to pay property tax.

As far as the "temporary needs" of the hospital are concerned, Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand said it would be easier to address those issues if the hospital were to come to terms with its future plans.

Mr. Rabner said even if the hospital had purchased new land, it could not break ground until it received a "Certificate of Need" from the New Jersey Department of Heath and Senior Services that would allow the facility to relocate – a process that takes at least eight months.

The Planning Board will begin what was termed the "visioning process" for the hospital site at its April 21 session.


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