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Hospital Consultant's Plans In Flux As Neighbors Give Mixed Reactions

Matthew Hersh

Residents of neighborhoods adjacent to the University Medical Center at Princeton remained on guard last Tuesday night as a hospital consultant offered ideas for what development could look like on the 12-acre site once the hospital leaves Princeton.

However, in contrast to a preliminary presentation on May 3, last Tuesday's event underscored the importance of making the land attractive to future developers, thus enabling the sale of the land that would, in part, further finance a land acquisition: one that is now estimated at around $300 million, up from the $250 million once forecast by PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner.

Although hospital officials have yet to announce where the hospital will relocate its main campus, points in West Windsor or Plainsboro have surfaced as possibilities because of the desired close proximity to the current location. The hospital could disclose the site of its intended 300-bed facility as early as June, according to PHCS officials.

The May 17 meeting, however, focused primarily on possible housing and mixed-use possibilities for the current site. The presentation also touched on the challenges that lie ahead when it comes to rezoning a tract that is currently zoned only for hospitals.

J. Robert Hillier, head of the West Windsor-based Hillier Architecture, presented an outline for housing that comprises 280 resident-owned units in a project that would make use of of the hospital's eight-story tower. Mr. Hillier's plan provides for a public park at the current Medical Arts Building, and a private roof-top garden area. There would also be a public daycare center and fitness center.

Both Mr. Hillier and Mr. Rabner pointed out that while Hillier Architecture is the hospital's paid consultant, the plans put forth would reflect the feedback from these hospital-hosted meetings and hospital-related hearings by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton. Not all of the 40 residents in attendance were satisfied with this explanation.

When resident Jenny Crumiller questioned Hillier's role as a potential developer on the site, Mr. Rabner assured her that any design put forth was subject to resident input.

PHCS has been working with Mr. Hillier and his associates for the better part of two years examining ideas on how the site would be used after the likely relocation of the hospital. Mr. Hillier stressed the importance of having some schematics in place before the site is sold to developers to ensure results in keeping with the goals put forth by residents.

"If a developer just came in and wanted to do his thing, the concern is that it would take forever and that any developer from out of town isn't going to understand the situation," Mr. Hillier said, adding that it was for that reason that the hospital took it upon itself to "at least get to a concept of the land use.

"Then we're going to take that concept, and give it to the developers," he said, but that the concept could evolve for certain "market-responsive" factors.

Any concept from the Hillier/hospital camp will reconsider plans for approximately 68,000 square-feet of buildable property on the Franklin Avenue surface parking lot. Mr. Hillier had originally proposed that area to be developed into 24 units in buildings three stories in height, but residents worried about the density of such development.

In response to residents' concerns about the volume of traffic generated by a residential facility, Mr. Hillier said that any new traffic would be lighter than the currently estimated 4,300 to 5,070 trips to and from the hospital. With standard residential housing, he pointed out, that number would drop to about 1,500 per day, with fewer trips for housing for residents 55 and up.

The proposed development could result in about $6 million in taxable property for the Borough, about $300,000 for the Township, and approximately $3 million for the school district. Under Mr. Hillier's plan, the majority of the proposed development would fall in the Borough.

Last Tuesday's event followed a similar Monday evening presentation held for Community Without Walls (CWW), a local organization of residents whose mission is to seek ways to age "in place," by remaining close to town. CWW has long advocated assisted living facilities and continuing care retirement communities (CCRC). A CCRC was one of the recommendations of an independent municipal task force formed to explore possible future hospital-site uses.

In November 2003, CWW and the radio station WHYY organized the "Widening Horizons Conference," which addressed housing, transportation, and health issues. As the keynote speaker at that conference, Mr. Hillier called for zoning to encourage re-using existing buildings in order to allow developers to justify the cost incurred with senior housing.


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