June 13, 2012

AvalonBay Files Revised Site Plan For Rental Development

AvalonBay, the developer under contract to build a rental community at the site of the now-empty University Medical Center of Princeton, has filed a site plan with the Regional Planning Board. Details of the plan, which was revised after meetings of an ad hoc subcommittee made up of representatives of local government, the developer, and a citizen representative, were the topic of often heated discussion at a meeting of Borough Council last week.

Ron Ladell, senior vice president of the AvalonBay company, told those gathered that while he knew it would not please everyone, he hoped that the changes to the plan would be acceptable to most. The company filed the site plan last Friday, two days after the meeting.

Residents of the neighborhood have expressed repeated concerns about scale, access, sustainability, and other issues related to the 280-unit community targeted for the site, which was vacated by the hospital for a new building in Plainsboro last month.

The ad hoc design committee, which included Mr. Ladell, Borough Mayor Yina Moore, Council members Jenny Crumiller and Kevin Wilkes, resident Joseph Weiss, Princeton Environmental Commission member Heidi Fichtenbaum, and Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB) member Bill Wolfe, have met during recent weeks to try to address residents’ concerns. “We’ve come to some point of progress,” Mayor Moore said at the meeting. “We continue to seek the kinds of improvements that would make for a better community, if this developer seeks to continue with the application.”

Now that the application has been filed, the zoning is locked in under the “time of application” rule that exempts it from any further changes.

“The zoning is in place. We are not going to change it,” Mr. Ladell said. “We expect to file a conforming site plan imminently, and we look forward to site plan hearings at the Planning Board as soon as possible so that the empty hospital building will not have to remain and we can start our work as soon as possible. We appreciate the time and effort put forth by the ad hoc committee over the past many weeks and we look forward to our full site plan presentation and further input from the community.”

There was plenty of input at the meeting. Numerous neighborhood residents lined up to ask questions and offer comments about the amendments to the plan, from how demolition of the current building would proceed to whether asbestos would be properly removed.

Changes to the design of the complex to rise in the hospital’s place include a lower building height and reduction of the mass of the building, as well as the addition of an archway to be built at the front of the complex on Witherspoon Street. While a few people expressed support for the revised plan, most continued to voice opposition, saying the changes were not enough.

One particular sticking point was AvalonBay’s intention to build a pool in the courtyard. When one person suggested putting in a community garden instead of a pool, especially in light of the fact that the newly renovated Princeton Community Pool is blocks away, Mr. Ladell responded that all AvalonBay communities have pools. “It is very valued, it is very prized, and people expect it,” he said.

In response to complaints that the property will be a gated community, without access to the surrounding neighborhood and in conflict with Borough code, the ad hoc committee added the 20-foot-high, 25-feet-wide archway and opened up an interior courtyard to the public while reserving a second area for residents of the complex. The height of the building was reduced in some areas by two stories and other areas by one. Those heights make the building similar in scale to Lambert House, which is currently on the site. The developers are allowed seven stories, with up to 67.5 feet in height. The plan calls for heights ranging from 32.5 to 48 feet. The existing hospital building is 119 feet high.

Architect Jonathan Metz of Perkins Eastman Architects said nothing on Henry Street, including the parking garage, will change as part of the plan. The Witherspoon Street and Franklin Terrace first floor units will have front porches, and be accessible directly without entering the main building. Those apartments located on the side will have terraces or decks, also providing direct access to residents. All of the street facades will have sidewalks and green plantings.

The building’s facades will vary in style, according to suggestions made by the ad hoc committee. The massing will be different due to varied heights, architectural elements, and stairwells.

Resident Mary Clurman asked Mr. Ladell not only about why there is a plan for a pool, but also why Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards are not being used in the complex. As he has said in the past, Mr. Ladell replied that the company uses the less-stringent but common standards known as Energy Star, and that will not change. Current zoning guidelines do not require LEED.

Other residents expressed dissatisfaction with the revised courtyard design, saying it only provides one way in and out and that neighborhood residents should be able to walk through.

Sandra Persichetti, executive director of Princeton Community Housing, praised the project for its inclusion of 20 percent affordable housing units. “I have 500 people on a waiting list for affordable units. Instead of worrying about the color of siding or the width of an archway, think about those 500 people without homes,” she said.

Resident Daniel Harris, a member of Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods, responded that no one in the room was opposed to affordable housing. He added that the group wants a list of sustainable elements to be submitted to the Planning Board not later than three weeks after AvalonBay files its site plan.

The revisions do not change the status of the homes on Harris Road that are included in the AvalonBay deal, Mr. Ladell said.The buildings at 281 and 277 Witherspoon Street were retained by the hospital and will remain.