Developer AvalonBay has withdrawn its request to increase the density of its proposed apartment complex at the downtown hospital site, but despite the change, the zoning change approvals for the project are still a few weeks away.
The Princeton Borough council voted Tuesday night to reintroduce a revised zoning ordinance for the hospital site that eliminates the density increase. The ordinance includes changes for signage and an onsite leasing office. Current zoning allows for 280 units at the site. AvalonBay previously wanted to add another 44 units.
While the representative for AvalonBay and some officials argued the Borough Council could adopt the ordinance without reintroduction, Borough Attorney Henry Chou recommended reintroducing the ordinance because of the changes, to avoid any potential legal challenges.
“This process has become way too complicated and it is really not,” said a frustrated Ron Ladell, the senior vice president of AvalonBay Communities, who disagreed with Chou’s opinion.
“We are fully proposing to be in compliance. We will have 20 percent affordable units, including very low income, low income and moderate income units. That is unprecedented in the entire state,” he said. “We have to move quickly. The hospital is moving in less than a month. It is asbestos ridden and it is going to take time to clean up. A delay is very difficult for us when don’t even know if can have leasing office in the community…I don’t understand why anyone wants that hulking shell to stand there any longer than it has to have to.”
But councilwoman Jo Butler said the Council should listen to its lawyer.
“I know everyone is in hurry, but it was the developer’s choice to pursue the increased density in the first place. That is why it has taken so long,” she said. “If our attorney is telling us in the interest of caution to reintroduce the ordinance, why not listen?”
The council unanimously voted to reintroduce the zoning ordinance. The ordinance will now go back to the Princeton Regional Planning Board May 3 and the public hearing and adoption at Borough Council will tentatively take place May 7.
Some residents called for AvalonBay to be forced to build to green LEED standards, but Chou said developers building affordable housing that qualify under state rules as COAH housing can’t be forced to follow such standards. “It would be struck down by the courts,” Chou said.
Kevin Walsh of the Fair Share Housing Center voiced support for the project and said there has been a deficit of affordable housing projects in Princeton since 1993.
“The 20 percent affordable development is a good thing. We regret the developer withdrew the request for 324 units. It would have resulted in more affordable housing in the community,” Walsh said. “We spend a lot of time fighting developers, but not here. The developer is going above and beyond.”
Resident Joe Bardzilowski, who was applauded by many residents in the audience of more than 60, said he is not sure residents should trust Avalon Bay’s promises.
“It’s more important for the future of the town that we get it right, not that we get it done fast,” he said. “To me it’s all about trust…They said they needed the extra units to make the project work, now all of a sudden it is alright to go for 280 units. Why didn’t they do that to begin with?…I think we have been given clues as to how much we should or should not trust the greedy corporation that wants to move in to our town.”
One resident suggested the town partner instead with Princeton University to redevelop the site. Residents circulated a petition during the meeting calling on the town to do so. Princeton HealthCare owns the site. The new hospital will open in Plainsboro on May 22.
More than a dozen construction workers from the SEIU 32BJ union sat in the audience at the council meeting. Their spokesperson, Lisa McAllister, told the Borough Council Avalon Bay is not the right developer for the hospital site. She sited numerous violations of OSHA safety standards by AvalonBay contractors and subcontractors. “We don’t want a developer with a questionable safety record to receive preferential treatment,” she said.