Planning Board: Density Increase at Hospital Site Inconsistent with Master Plan

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

The Regional Planning Board of Princeton is advising the Princeton Borough Council that developer AvalonBay’s request to increase the density at the downtown hospital site as inconsistent with the master plan.

Borough Council will consider the zoning ordinance at its public meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Borough Hall.

In a 9-1 vote Thursday night, the board said allowing an additional 44 units above the 280 approved under the existing zoning would be inconsistent with the master plan and objectionable. Board member and former Borough mayor Mildred Trotman cast the lone vote in support of the density increase because of the number of affordable units the project would provide.

AvalonBay withdrew a previous request to keep the number of affordable units constant despite the requested density increase. The company proposed instead to add so-called workforce units with a Princeton preference. But Ron Ladell, senior vice president at AvalonBay, told the board Thursday night the company was withdrawing that request and would comply with the 20 percent affordable allocation.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people attended the meeting that lasted almost four hours and ended just before midnight. Some members of the audience voiced support for the project, stressing the need for affordable housing. But others argued the project would not fit in with the surrounding neighborhoods and that the extra density was just too much.

“The higher density on the site is smart growth,” said Borough Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad, adding that many people can;t afford to buy in town but could rent. “The average home in Princeton costs $453,000. A down-payment of $90,000 is significantly out of reach form most working class folks.”

Trelstad said the project exceeds open space requirements by 30 percent and that the design includes usable front porch entrances. “That will put eyes on the street, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Sandra Persichetti of Princeton Community Housing said affordable housing is in high demand, with more than 500 families on waiting lists for housing in developments run by her group.

“We hope people learn from the past that endless conversation is not in anyone’s interest. We do not want to see abandoned buildings and blight at the site,” she said. “The project is acceptable to us as long as it is built in a timely fashion…People have to commute long distances to Princeton for jobs. I believe it is fair to assume that everyone in this room has a home to go to tonight. I urge you to think of those living in substandard conditions.”

Adam Gordon, a lawyer with the Fair Share Housing Center, voiced support for the project if the 20 percent affordable requirement is met.

“I think it is really important to figure out how to move forward and do something,” he said. “The history here is that things are going on forever, and that has a cost.”

But residents like Victoria Airgood said the limit of 280 units was negotiated for the existing zoning through numerous meetings between officials and residents from the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Allowing 280 units was a big compromise for the neighborhood, and it was done so the hospital could sell the site for a higher prince than if it had been redeveloped in character with the neighborhood,” said resident Alexi Assmus. “Why is the town spending any time discussing whether the number should be raised? The answer should have been an immediate no from the get go. Numerous potential buyers would love to redevelop the site.”

Resident Joe McGeady called on the board to stay true to the zoning, and said the vision for the area under the master plan was to create a neighborhood with a public playground, shops, public plazas and other amenities.

“A great opportunity is slipping through our hands,” McGeady said of the proposal to change the zoning. “”The draft ordinance and plan does not serve the community and disregards the design standards of the Borough code. The plan has minimum open space on Witherspoon…the town deserves better. I would hate to see us miss this chance and settle for the ordinary because an ordinance that is inconsistent with the master plan was allowed to pass through the planning board.”

Resident Joseph Weiss asked officials to step back and look at the where the development fits in in the area.

“The site sits astride two vibrant neighborhoods, along a major gateway, a main thoroughfare to town. It will be very important that the development respects the context of the site, the context of the neighborhoods. That’s one of the fundamental purposes of zoning,” Weiss said. “I’d urge you to amend the district to reduce the allowable bulk and density of the site rather than allow something to be built that would completely disrupt the fabric of the adjacent neighborhood.”

Resident Joe Bardzilowski, who lives on Henry Avenue, questioned whether Avalon Bay’s parking estimates for tenants were too low and said he visited some Avalon complexes in other parts of the state and saw that garbage bins were not well maintained.

“I found recycling bins full of regular trash,, cats digging in to garbage bags, and in Tinton Falls a garbage area that was a fenced in area covered with brown tarps,” he said. “Where is that going to fit in to my neighborhood? I’m going to smell it, see it, and probably hear the compacting at the dumpsters.”

Resident Peter Marks accused officials of overriding the master plan whenever well-heeled developers come to town. “But when ordinary homeowners want a modest variance, they are told no,” he said, arguing that developments like Avalon are driving moderate income residents out of Princeton.

Ladell told the planning board that with the hospital closing and moving to Plainboro May 22, his company is eager to begin work. Asbestos clean up could take 10 to 12 months and will cost an estimated $4 million.

Matt Wasserman of the Princeton Environmental Commission said the commission supported the increased density, with 20 percent affordable units, if the buildings are built to LEED standards, a sentiment echoed by several residents in the audience. Laddell said the company is committed to building the complex  following energy star standards.

Site Plan Review Advisory Board member Bill Wolfe said the board had concerns about the style, scale, massing and design standards. He said the monolithic floor plans magnify the building size and monotony “like dressing a fat man in a plaid suit.”

Township Committeeman Bernie Miller said he believes the 280 figure was arrived at very carefully.

“I have difficulty supporting a higher number even with the offer of providing a 20 percent affordable set aside,” he said. “I we can’t invoke LEED standards, but perhaps if the developer stood up and said he would volunteer…I wonder why he is not stepping forward and saying he will volunteer.  I’m also concerned about the absence of retail shops from site. That absence will cause residents to get in their cars and drive elsewhere instead of shopping in the neighborhood where they can walk.”

Trotman said she did not have a problem with the increased density. She said the building would be lower in height than the existing hospital site and said the developer is exceeding standards regarding open space and other issues.

“The more I’ve looked at this, the more I think the impact on the community will be minimized compared to what is there now,” she said.

But other board members like Marvin Reed expressed skepticism about the increased density and asked what the town would be getting in exchange for the increase.