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Hillier Proposal Envisions Mixed Use As Hospital Nears Relocation Notice

Matthew Hersh

With the the trustees of the Princeton HealthCare System about to make an announcement on the future site of the University Medical Center at Princeton, the community is gradually getting used to the idea that something other than a hospital will occupy the 12-acre tract on Witherspoon Street.

The latest proposal for that area is from Architect J. Robert Hillier, of the Princeton-based Hillier Architecture. At a May 3 hospital-hosted community meeting, Mr. Hillier, a paid consultant for PHCS through the hospital's planning process, announced his proposal for mixed-use development of that site for residents 55 and up. A revised proposal was delivered Tuesday night at the hospital to address the residents' concerns from the preliminary presentation.

The plans put forth included 280 units on 9.6 acres of space, Mr. Hillier said, adding that a public area, stores, and recreation centers were also part of the design. However, the architect was quick to make clear that the hospital would not relocate for at least five years and that these current plans simply constitute a "first pass" at what is bound to be a complex piece of developed property.

"When we met with the neighbors, we learned more and now we're working on some further design based on their input and concerns," he said. "I describe the whole process of design as starting with really soft clay and you work with it as you get more information, and you finally get to a point where you bake it."

That final stage, Mr. Hillier said, a long way off. Residents at the May 3 presentation worried that development on that site would be too dense and not in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods. Princeton Future, an independent group that hosts community discussion on in-town development, recently put forth its own hospital scheme, as part of its ongoing Witherspoon Street Corridor Study. That study has recently honed in on the hospital site as the Regional Planning Board of Princeton has begun to explore changes in zoning that would allow new development to occur. As it stands, the 12 acres are zoned primarily for hospitals and would need to be changed if any sort of residential development were to replace UMCP.

Princeton University seemed to be a willing partner with the hospital when early discussions began last year, speculating that the hospital site could be used for graduate housing. The apparent fading of that prospect, however, has left the door open for other development possibilities.

At the Planning Board's most recent session focusing on the hospital, member Bill Enslin said that if Princeton wants to fully develop that soon-to-be-vacancy in Princeton, the density of development will have to be at a level higher than what is currently there.

The density in the Hillier/PHCS proposal is a bit under 30 units per acre. The density in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood is 22 units per acre. "It's increased density, but not by much," Mr. Hillier said. "So we're a little more than a garden apartment density by 25 percent."

That said, Mr. Hillier emphasized the decreased traffic that would come with such development. An average of 2,650 cars per day make their way to and from the University Medical Center at Princeton. Under this new senior housing proposal, Mr. Hillier estimated a decrease to 974 cars per day. He added that while there are at least 100 trucks and ambulances that arrive at the hospital daily, minimal truck activity would occur with new development. "It would be one garbage truck a day," he said.

Mr. Hillier said pricing could only be determined once the nature of the development becomes clearer. However, 12 percent of the units would be affordable per state regulations.

The Planning Board will continue their hearing on future zoning of the hospital site next Thursday, May 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Township Hall. Princeton Future will deliver the latest finding from its study this Saturday at 9 a.m. in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library.

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