Letters: Hospital Leadership and AvalonBay Should Do Better in Princeton

To the Editor:

The Princeton Medical Center and developer AvalonBay can still salvage a deal that will damage the Princeton community.

It is doubtful that hospital leadership (or its president and CEO, Barry Rabner), directed AvalonBay’s attention to the 2006 Master Plan, which lays out an exciting vision for the civic rejuvenation of the site. The lapse is disturbing because Mr. Rabner himself, in countless meetings with the Borough’s Task Force, who negotiated a housing density of 280 units to boost the property’s value—in exchange for which Mr. Rabner agreed to public open spaces and walkways crossing the site, a public plaza, LEED “to the extent practical,” and retail stores for the neighborhood’s economic health.

None of this appears in the site plan submitted by AvalonBay. A draft version was sharply criticized by the Site Plan Review Advisory Board for manifold violations of Borough Code. Revisions show only perfunctory changes, one of which simply agrees to comply with fire code. AvalonBay stubbornly disallows public walkways crossing the  site. The plan still proposes two conjoined monolithic squares: a gated community that wrecks the vision of a newly diversified community. The opening of the smaller block into a dead-end space for “quiet meditation” is a mockery of code. The economic fallout for the Princeton community is unknown; if the Lawrenceville AvalonBay development is a model, renters will be slapped with a $500 annual maintenance fee in addition to rent. Other communities—no wonder—have rejected AvalonBay: Scripps Ranch in CA, Greater Huntington (Long Island), and Highland Park, NJ.

Hospital leadership and AvalonBay should collaborate to do better. AvalonBay’s architectural firm, PerkinsEastman, has recently merged with EE&K, a creative  group of architects who deliberately designing “green” and generate  solutions to foster healthy neighborhoods (see www.eekarchitects.com). Fully one-third of their staff are LEED-accredited architects; three of their recent buildings qualified for LEED-Gold certification; and The Aventiene (Gaithersburg, MD), certified LEED for New Development, won a National AIA Design Excellence Award.

EE&K’s website states: “Our approach starts with an acute awareness of how residential buildings can both contribute to and benefit from the public realm.” This is exactly what is missing in the AvalonBay site-plan and in Mr. Ladell’s dismissive approach approach to Princeton communal needs. It is what Mr. Rabner supported while he negotiated for  the hospital’s economic benefit—and seems to have forgotten.

Why should Princeton settle for anything less than excellent design that does not violate Borough Code?

The botch-up of the Princeton Master Plan and Borough Code embodied in AvalonBay’s site plan application can be rectified by turning to EE&K now  instead of courting conflict later. The hospital has a profound obligation to press its contract-purchaser to heed the dictates of that Plan and Code. Princeton residents are tired of hearing AvalonBay’s Ron Ladell say what he won’t do—for example, “zero” LEED; we do not want affordable housing at the any price. Mr. Ladell should try not to smash the potential for neighborhood revitalization.  The Master Plan lays out public policy: both parties should work, now, for the public good.

Daniel A. Harris