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To Community Group, Medical Center Plays Role in Larger Planning Scheme

Matthew Hersh

In early 2004, when Princeton Future set out to find the "next big thing" in terms of in-town development, the organization selected the ever-evolving Witherspoon Street corridor as a part of town that should be examined.

Speculation aside,the group had no idea at the time that the trustees of the Princeton HealthCare System would announce their intentions to move the University Medical Center at Princeton out of town for a 250-acre greener pasture.

But that is the case, and is clearly the "next big thing," as residents and and municipal officials alike weigh the development possibilities of the hospital's 12-acre main campus on Witherspoon Street.

This past Saturday at the Princeton Public Library, Princeton Future offered a summation of nine community meetings focused on Witherspoon Street that included not only the hospital, but the commercialized southern end, the residential area between Paul Robeson Place and Leigh Avenue, and the institutional northern end that includes Township Hall, Community Park Elementary School, Mercer Engine #3, and the Valley Road Building.

And while the Saturday meeting was attended by nearly half of Borough Council and some members of the Regional Planning Board, the thrust of the Witherspoon Study was to be merely an advisory representation of the ideas put forth by the participating residents.

"The idea behind it all was not to be an alternative government or substitute government, but to pose the opportunity to listen to each other," said Robert Geddes, co-chair of Princeton Future.

"A plan is crucial," said Yina Moore, adding that imminent change to Witherspoon Street, including the addition to the Arts Council, and the emergence of businesses on the northern end of the street, offered the opportunity for discussion.

The group addressed the prospect of zoning, particularly in the hospital area. If the 12-acre hospital block surrounded by Harris Road, Henry Avenue, Franklin Avenue, and Witherspoon Street were rezoned for residential use, residents were largely in agreement that the area should have a character in keeping with the Jefferson Road neighborhood to the east and the Witherspoon neighborhood to the west. As it stands, the 510,860 square feet of that tract that make up the Borough's HMC zone and the Township's H-2 zone, would have to be entirely rezoned for housing, as they are currently zoned only for hospitals and medical offices.

Various scenarios for development introduced at Princeton Future's April 16 meeting were developed at Saturday's recap. Unlike a scheme put forth by the West Windsor-based Hillier Architecture exploring future residential development of the hospital's main campus site (see story on page 7), only one of Princeton Future's seven scenarios envisioned using the seven-story hospital tower, and all schemes outlined an extension of Leigh Avenue. One scheme also visualized maintaining some sort of medical presence at the corner of Henry Avenue and Witherspoon Street.

Keeping the hospital tower, however, raised some eyebrows among some residents of the immediate neighborhoods. "The [tower] is a real problem," said Carnahan Place resident Heidi Fichtenbaum. "[It] has absolutely nothing to do with either neighborhood."

Landscaping and sidewalk conditions were also addressed Saturday. Kevin Wilkes, an architect with Princeton Design Guild, who has been involved in the WSCS, said that Witherspoon should be enhanced for pedestrians who live along the street and for those who use its institutions. Among his suggestions were to bury the utility lines in the residential area because of the "tremendous" damage done to the trees; to open the gates of the cemetery to create more of a park-like setting; and to install a series of "neck-downs," where the road narrows considerably to slow traffic for the benefit of pedestrian crossings. Those would resemble the recent neck-down installation on University Place at McCarter Theatre. Mr. Wilkes also proposed the installation of improved bus stop facilities at the Arts Council, the Valley Road Building, and Community Park.

Bike lanes were generally not recommended because of the volume of traffic and the relatively narrow width of the street.

Princeton Future was invited to attend a hearing by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton this Thursday, May 26, at 7:30 p.m. at Township Hall. The hearing is a continuation of the Planning Board's consideration to amend the Princeton Community Master Plan and recommend ordinances that would accommodate future development on the hospital site. Members of the board have said they hope to have the parameters for any amendment in place by mid-summer, with hearings and possible adoption by the fall. Those amendments would then serve as the basis for any zoning changes.

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