By Barry Rabner
Over the past several weeks, letters to editors, blogs and presentations at public meetings have addressed the redevelopment of the former hospital site. I would like to provide you with information and my perspective on that issue.
The Decision to Move
After two years, approximately 100 public meetings with elected officials, residents, hospital trustees, patients and staff, and a thorough and transparent planning process, the community reached a consensus that PHCS should build a state-of-the-art replacement hospital. It was the view of the community that the old hospital site would better serve a residential purpose and that its sale should support the community’s new hospital. The business plan for the new facility assumed revenue from the sale of the old campus based upon the current zoning approved in 2006. PHCS, a not-for-profit institution, is moving into an era of decreasing reimbursement and increasing costs. The proceeds from the sale matter even more now than they did when the plan was developed over five years ago.
Zoning and Community Priorities
The process of rezoning the hospital site consisted of extensive and candid discussions of many points of view that took approximately two years. . During that time Princeton HealthCare System presented a concept plan to stimulate public discussion and to help with visualizing some options for the site. Princeton Township and Princeton Borough adopted new zoning as a result of the process that had been undertaken with the community. The concept plan offered design options. We refrained from presenting a site plan that described specific improvements that a future buyer might have made to the site. It is the responsibility of the buyer to determine which improvements he/she may wish to make and to seek approvals for them. We came away from the zoning process with an understanding of the community’s priorities and we considered these priorities as we evaluated prospective purchasers.
– Affordable Housing: Hospital representatives attended every public meeting regarding the Witherspoon site in order to understand the preferences of members of the community. Many elected officials and residents felt that 20 percent of the units to be built should be affordable housing units. Even though the NJ affordable housing mandates never have required 20 percent affordable units for rental housing projects, we accepted the 20 percent as an absolute requirement. In addition, the affordable housing had to be integrated into the building, not segregated or in other ways differentiated from the market-rate housing.
– Sustainability and Smart Growth: Some residents advocated for a “green” building, at least to the extent that LEED standards would be followed as much as possible, even if the building could not be LEED certified. By the nature of its location, the project already qualified as a Smart Growth community, which is an urban planning and transportation concept that concentrates growth in a compact walkable center to avoid sprawl. A Smart Growth community is transit-oriented and near retail, educational, recreational and social facilities. The hospital enhanced the Smart Growth characteristics of the project when it invested in the new NJ Transit Bus #655 that stops at the Witherspoon site and connects the site to the Dinky station and the new hospital in Plainsboro.
– Preference for Open Design: Some elected officials and community members expressed a preference for a site design with open space that was inviting to the public rather than a closed gated community. The current proposal exceeds the open space requirements of the ordinance and provides for a public park as an entry element to the development.
– Preserve the Neighborhood: The proposed reuse of the site produces a far quieter neighborhood with less traffic than before. The existing homes on Harris Road will continue to be used as private residences.
– Provide Senior Housing: Even though senior housing is not mandated by the zoning ordinance, we understood a priority to be the creation of moderate income properties that would provide a housing alternative for seniors, as well as encourage density. The current plan provides this option in addition to the mandated affordable housing.
Selection of a Developer
The first developer was chosen by PHCS in 2005 and withdrew from the project at the height of the recession. When marketing the property for the second time, we sought a developer with extensive experience and the financial strength necessary to develop a project that would comply with adopted zoning and reflect the priorities we have mentioned. Every prospective purchaser was given the zoning ordinance for the site, was told of our understanding of the community’s preferences and was encouraged to review the record of the public meetings. We only considered bids from developers who agreed to accept the adopted zoning and understood and accepted the community’s priorities. AvalonBay Communities best met those criteria and we signed an agreement of sale. We received higher bids, which, however, were not compliant with the zoning.
Under the sale contract, the site plan development and approval process are solely the responsibility of the developer and not the seller — Princeton HealthCare System. The current site plan proposal is different from the concept plan that we presented several years ago. It appears that both comply with the current zoning and reflect many people’s preferences, though clearly not all. Here are just a few examples:
The concept plan reused the old hospital building, including the seven story bed tower. In 2005, several residents expressed a preference for reducing the height of whatever was built on the site. The adopted zoning, however, allowed the seven story bed tower to remain. The current proposal calls for varied heights, ranging from three stories to four stories to five stories. Although the lower height of the buildings presents an open space configuration that differs from the concept plan, the current proposal does exceed the open space requirement.
The concept plan envisioned a modest amount of neighborhood retail space to be located on the site. However, the ordinance does not require retail and the current plan calls for no retail on the site because there is significant retail space, both empty and occupied within walking distance of the site.
The concept plan envisioned the medical office building at 281 Witherspoon remaining and the building at 277 Witherspoon Street being demolished. However, AvalonBay Communities determined not to purchase these buildings. As a result, the property has been sold to another developer who plans to continue the current medical office use as allowed by the existing zoning. This approach satisfies the open space requirements of the zoning and that sufficient parking exists in the garage to meet the needs of the office buildings and the planned residential use.
There is no evidence of current contamination of the hospital site at 253 Witherspoon Street. The relevant NJ Department of Environmental Protection documentation has been disclosed to those reviewing and inspecting the site. To our knowledge, allegations that the hospital site is contaminated have no support.
We have served the Princeton community for 93 years and are doing everything possible to ensure that we can continue to fulfill our commitment to our patients and the community for the next century. We engaged the community in every aspect of our efforts. After a comprehensive national search for a developer, we selected a buyer who expressed a commitment to comply with zoning that was in place and who had the experience and the financial capability to complete the project successfully. We cannot control or direct the developer’s effort to secure all necessary approvals to proceed with the project.
Over the years, people have advocated aggressively for their view of the best use and design for the old hospital site. The current zoning reflects the municipality’s best efforts at addressing those diverse and at times conflicting views. It is easy to forget or under- estimate the enormity of that task. There was never unanimity among all of the interested parties. Some people wanted the site to become a park, others wanted all single family homes and still others wanted townhouses. Some wanted the building to be made available only to seniors and others wanted maximum diversity. Some wanted brick, others stone and others wood. At times there were debates about the color of the materials to be used and the type of trees to be planted. In the end, a compromise was reached, a capable buyer selected and the final approval process initiated. People have been thoughtful and passionate. We have been transparent, participative, ethical and responsible. I have full confidence that the public process will produce the right outcome for the community.
Mr. Rabner is the CEO and President of Princeton HealthCare System.