Avalon Bay Zoning Change Vote Slated for Later This Month

Rendering of new apartments slated for the hospital site on Witherspoon Street.

The Princeton Regional Planning Board will discuss the proposed zoning changes for apartment developer Avalon Bay at the board’s April 19 public meeting. The Borough Council has scheduled a public hearing and vote on the zoning ordinance for the downtown hospital site on April 24.

Avalon Bay is requesting that the zoning be changed at the hospital site on Witherspoon Street to allow for increased density of 324 apartment units, up from the approved 280. The company is also asking that it not be required to increase the number of affordable units beyond the 56  already required if the increase is granted.

Residents have come out in force to express their opposition to the request at various meetings. If comments by Borough Council members Tuesday night are any indication, it would appear that with the contested Democratic primary less than two months away and voters promising to campaign against officials who support Avalon Bay, the developer probably does not have enough votes right now to get the increase approved.

Council members restated what they have previously said — that introducing the zoning ordinance earlier this year did not mean they necessarily supported the changes.  Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said the council wanted to discuss the issue Tuesday to send a message to the planning board.

“We want to correct the misperception that the Council approved what was submitted to the planning board,” she said.

Several residents said they oppose the increased density and the bulky building design, and some said they don’t want a gated community in the neighborhood. Resident Marco Gattardis said back when zoning was negotiated for the hospital site, residents worked tirelessly with government officials to come up with the zoning.

“I don’t want to see a bait and switch and have you guys be part of that. We worked very hard to come up with the number 280 and the afford housing number,” he said. “We want to preserve our neighborhood. We want it to stay the way it is. I will find out who supports changing this. We will work tirelessly to fight you during elections. We can not convince the hospital about who they need to sell to, but you can hold forth to the zoning. That is in your power to do.”

One resident expressed surprise that Princeton would consider yielding to a developer she said is “synonymous with very mediocre” development. “Look at their other developments,” she said. “Very little care was put in to the Princeton proposal. Look at the reviews from renters. They are not a friendly or well-liked landlord.”

Resident Peter Marks said the size of the existing hospital complex should not be compared to Avalon Bay’s proposal when considering what to allow in the site in the future. “A hospital in an inherent good,” Marks said. “The hospital was worthwhile because it was a first class hospital. But the hospital is coming down. What exists there is irrelevant to a discussion of what should be there in the future.”

Marks said supporters of granting the increase include people who believe the hospital should make as much money as possible from the sale in order to help  pay for the new hospital, and people who want to see more affordable housing in Princeton. Marks argued that neither of those goals is in conflict with a lower density scheme. Marks, a real estate investor, has argued that a much lower density project should be built in the site. But he also said even if Avalon Bay developed the site under the existing zoning, the company would still make a profit on the project.

Resident Anne Neumann said the site should be developed so that it is in harmony with the neighborhood. She suggested that previous proposals developed at Princeton Future meetings be revisited for ideas.  Resident Jeff York said a more appropriate alternative should include a clinic.

“I’m  sad to see the hospital go,” he said. “It’s appalling that no thought has been given to providing a clinic, or some sort of emergency focal point…There are just so many talented people out there who will work for a dime. Let’s do the right thing here in Princeton and start a clinic.”

Hospital spokeswoman Pam Hersh said the hospital is sensitive to concerns about patients and the clinic move. About 80 percent of the clinic patients do not come from Princeton, she said, and the hospital is heavily subsidizing a bus to transport patients to the new hospital two miles away in Plainsboro. The bus will begin running May 14. The hospital opens May 22. Free shuttle tickets will be given to anyone who now walks to the hospital, Hersh said, and the hospital is also contracting with a cab company to transport people who call the hospital in need of a ride. A separate clinic would be providing two different levels of care, she argued.

“Why should poor people get crummier care?” Hersh said. “Our clinic at the hospital is staffed by the same experts everyone gets to see.”

Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes pointed out that Avalon Bay is asking for an increase in units, but already has zoning approvals for the type of building the developer wants to build.

“If we say no, they could still build this big building,” he said. “The zoning is already in place. They could take 280 units and swell them up to fit.”

Wilkes said one of the sad turns of 20th century development is that government has abdicated its role in planning neighborhoods. “Governments used to lay out streets, neighborhoods,utilities, and build a community house by house,” he said. “Now developers come to us and create neighborhoods lock stock and barrel. It’s discomforting to me to be in a position to sit here and accept or reject the only option set before us.”

While the company would build 56 affordable units, something Wilkes said no one has come close to in the community so far, “It comes at a price, as some of you mentioned – the cost to the neighborhood of increased density.”

“We are missing something here. We really could use a community partnership, a community development organization that works together to get government bonding and create something that could be built on a smaller scale where we still have affordable housing…Sadly we don’t have that developer standing here tonight offering the hospital money to make it happen.”