Letters: Princeton University’s Determination to Move the Dinky is Wrong-Headed, AvalonBay’s Open Space Plan is Insufficient

Build the Arts Complex, But Maintain the Train Station

To the Editor:

As a Princeton taxpayer who headed the Borough’s Traffic and Transportation Committee for many years, I must offer a few observations about the University’s wrong-headed determination to move the Dinky station further from downtown.  My bottom line is simple (I’m sure most residents-and most Planning Board members-will have had this thought): in a time when scientists agree that climate change threatens, why make public transportation less convenient?  Make no mistake; to approve this plan means more people will drive to the station and fewer people will use the rail connection, period.

Princeton is full of people expert in their fields who have testified against this proposal: among the adverse effects they have noted is hopelessly snarled traffic in the Alexander Road corridor.  So not only is this decision wrong in its essence, it’s wrong in its details.

Here’s how to serve the arts: build the proposed arts complex, but maintain the current station.  Princeton will not regret this outcome, just as New York City did not regret saving Grand Central station in the 1970s.  As the Supreme Court wrote in that decision, “[H]istoric conservation is but one aspect of the much larger problem, basically an environmental one, of enhancing…the quality of life for people.”

Has the University’s largesse silenced those who might otherwise say that this plan offends sensibility as well as good sense?  Bottom line: we know what’s right.  Can we now look the other way as Princeton University trades our in-town, historic train station for better access to its parking garage?

Sandy Solomon

Public Transportation is a Public Right

I have lived in this community for 36 years.  I drive on Alexander Road to get to Route One and I either walk to the Dinky or drive to the Dinky for travel to trains on the Northeast Corridor.

I believe that public transportation is a public right,  that the train link to Princeton Junction is a public good, and that our public streets should be managed for the benefit of everyone, not for a small privileged) subset of our population. For these reasons, I urge this Planning Board to reject the transit portions of the University’s site plan.

The proposal to move the Princeton Branch station stop south and away from town is indefensible.  This plan essentially privatizes our train station. It will make our train link to the Junction less convenient for all of us who use it, whether we walk or bike there, whether we drive and park, or whether someone drops us off.  For over a century we have had easy access to the Dinky from public streets.

We have not had to rely on special permissions or easements from a private corporation for our ability to get to the train.  The University’s plan proposes to change all of that.

And the Planning Board has the power to refuse to approve this proposal!

If the proposal is not rejected, to reach the train, we would have to go through University land to the service sector of the campus.   It will be harder to get there, making it much harder for those who are elderly or disabled.

The University proposes to providing another more gas-fueled shuttle service.  This is an insult to anyone who cares about environmental responsibility.   Instead of moving a mass transit stop to facilitate commuter car access to a parking garage, the University should encourage car pooling and other methods to cut down on auto use.

This proposal has no sound public policy virtue.  It is not in the best interests of our community.  A University that teaches international diplomacy should begin at home and end its campaign to reduce our rights to public transportation.

Planning Board use your rightful power to deny this application!

Mary Ellen Marino

AvalonBay Design for Former Hospital Site is Not a Model of Sustainability

To the Editor:

The Avalon Bay design raises several concerns regarding public and open space.

Thirty-six mature trees and the very tall evergreen hedges along Franklin Avenue and the interior driveway will be cut down for Avalon Bay’s building.  Dan Dobromilsky, the Planning Board’s Landscape Architecture consultant, takes a strong stance, saying, “The analysis of the existing vegetation on this site has completely discounted the value of mature landscape plantings in a community or neighborhood”.  The removal of such a large number of mature trees lowers our carbon sequestration and increases the heat island effect. Like the proposed building, there’s not much that’s sustainable about the proposed plantings, either, since only a third are native.

Dobromilsky’s report also alludes to another important issue that has been sublimated by the applicant’s landscape renderings: the backyards of many units will face the Franklin and Witherspoon streets.  Avalon Bay’s landscape design ignores the many things that are usually placed behind a house: air conditioners; storage units; garbage cans, etc.  None of these common backyard items are shown on the rendered site plan.  Furthermore, the spaces that the applicant has continued to call public can become instantly privatized by the installation of fences at the property lines along Franklin and Witherspoon—none of which would require permission.  And, suddenly, all that “public space” is only private….

We must not lose sight of the bigger picture.  This is the largest development site that Princeton has ever offered to a private developer, and we should be ashamed.  We have handed the developer our greatest allowable development in a central location, and the Avalon Bay design response has been to effectively remove the public nature that the concept plan crafted.

Consider Hinds Plaza.  It, too, is the front of a large apartment complex, widely enjoyed by the public in large part because the public feels welcome and has reasons to go and be there.  The integration of public features (stores, shops, institutions) and the fact that roadways on three sides do not surround it leads to its success.  At Avalon Bay, only the residents have reason to be there now that street-level commercial activity has been removed.  It’s their front yard and no more than a glorified, totted-up bus stop for the town.

Rather than using this development as an opportunity for Princeton to show how sustainable Princeton could be, we’re allowing Avalon Bay to bypass meaningful sustainability other than the givens–the scale of development and its central location.  That means only Avalon Bay profits, and the public loses.

Holly Grace Nelson

Resident Claims AvalonBay Submitted Wrong Previous Hillier Concept Plan for Hospital Site Last Week

To the Editor:

Alas! the wrong version of the 2005 Hillier concept plan for the hospital site renewal was introduced by AvalonBay at the Planning Board meeting (December 6). Jonathan Metz showed the first version of the plan, originally shown to Planning Board members on May 26, 2005. This version lacks the public walkway between Witherspoon Street and Harris Road that Mr. Hillier developed by July 14, 2005 for the Planning Board’s consideration, in response to Planning Board members’ input.

The later version is more community-friendly. The public walkway makes directly accessible the public patio area surrounded by two-story townhouses located roughly where the private swimming pool (enclosed by the four- and 5-story box proposed by AvalonBay) would be, if the site plan were unfortunately approved.

Moreover, the later plan has additional public walkways “crossing the site” (Borough Code, 17A-193B.d.1), linking neighborhoods to the TWO on-site public playgrounds serving the neighborhoods, new and existing. It truly fulfills the urban renewal intent of the Master Plan and Borough Code.

It’s a shame the rejected plan was shown. It mis-educates the public. It’s also the plan that Barry Rabner, CEO UMCP, allowed to be published by BlueGate Partners, who marketed the property. Many of us wish Mr. Rabner had exercised more diligent oversight and has defaulted in his commitment to our neighborhood. As Marvin Reed, on the Planning Board, said in frustration, again, (December 6), “the Hospital proposed the Design Standards”—and then failed to hold its chosen developer to compliance.

Planning Board members (and the public) should know that Mr. Metz’s estimate of the size of Hillier’s public parks is incorrect by 10,000 square feet. Hillier offered 35,000 sf., not 25,000—a huge difference. Mr Metz attempted to explain away the tiny sliver of park now offered to the Planning Board (14,990 sf.- less then HALF the 35,000sf proposed by Hillier and UMCP) by saying that the difference in size between the AvalonBay “park” and Hillier’s park is virtually the size of the building known as 277 Witherspoon, just sold by the Hospital. This truth obscures two facts: 1) AvalonBay could have attempted to meet public and official intent (a generous public park on the Hillier scale) and chose not to 2) AvalonBay’s sliver is surrounded on three sides by streets or driveways (Hillier’s vehicular entry was only on Henry Avenue, not also from Witherspoon).

We and the Planning Board must recall that the AvalonBay proposal embodies everything that Wendy Benchley feared most: “I was so afraid,” she said at a Borough Council meeting (May 8, 2006), “that the open space would be just a buffer around the block.” Ms. Benchley, for decades a distinguished civic leader in Princeton, was a serious student of urban design. The “buffer” of renters’ back yards that is now passed off as “publicly-accessible open space” (Jeremy Lang, for AvalonBay, December 6) along Witherspoon and Franklin is the realization of Wendy Benchley’s nightmare.

Joseph Bardzilowski

To the Editor:

Trustees for the Group `Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods’ Respond to Op-ed Piece by Hospital CEO Barry Rabner

Affordable Housing

Mr. Rabner writes that the Hospital made a commitment to 20% affordable housing: “Even though the NJ affordable housing mandates never have required 20 percent affordable housing for rental housing projects, we accepted the 20 percent as an absolute requirement.”

This statement contradicts the contract he signed with AvalonBay (July 28, 2011) which reads: “Prior to the end of the Subsequent Review Period, Buyer shall determine whether or not to pursue a rezoning of the Property [the MRRO zone] to seek development of the Property at a density in excess of 280 total units and/or pursue a reduction of the 20% affordable housing requirement.”

From Civil Action filed by the Hospital against AvalonBay on May 25, 2012 (Mercer County Superior Court, #MER-L-1299-12, count 13).

AvalonBay pursued both a density bonus and a reduction in the 20% affordable requirement.  The  Hospital agreed to this attempt in their contingency contract with AvalonBay. PCSN is a strong advocate of affordable housing and helped to defeat AvalonBay’s attempt to reduce it.

Avalon’s non-compliance with Code

Mr. Rabner writes of a “preference for open design” by “some.”  In fact, this is a requirement of Borough Code that was written specifically for the hospital site. AvalonBay’s plans do not comply with the vast majority of the Designs Standards section of Code (17A-193B).  SPRAB, in its October 22 report, lists fourteen requirements of Code that Avalon violates and writes, “SPRAB recommends the Planning Board not approve waivers for these standards, nor approve this application which does not comply with them.”  Borough Council passed an ordinance in 2006 requiring an open development.  Avalon must comply.

Concept Plan

Mr. Rabner writes that the Hospital’s plan was to “stimulate public discussion.”  At a Planning Board meeting where the concept was discussed (May 26, 2005), the hospital’s consultant architect stated, “we’ve asked the PB to basically give us a concept approval on that idea, and then we’re going to put that out in front of the developers and say, ok, developers, what’s your bid?  … That developer [that we select] we are expecting to follow the concepts that we will be developing with you in the PB. Yes, he will come in for a site plan approval, but we will in fact be looking for him to follow what we are proposing.”


Mr. Rabner states “there is no evidence of current contamination at the hospital site.” AvalonBay’s consultant EcolSciences discovered hazardous substances, which are not naturally occurring, and numerous “recognized environmental conditions,” including underground tanks (Phase I, Sept 2011 and Limited Phase II, Nov 2011).  The hazardous substances disclosed by EcolSciences are contaminants by definition. The contaminants, base neutral compounds, were detected at levels above NJ’s groundwater quality standards.

Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods stands firmly for affordable housing and the primacy of Borough Code. We call for soil and groundwater testing throughout the entire hospital property.

Alexi J. Assmus
Daniel A. Harris
Kate J. Warren

One Comment

  1. As a newcomer to Princeton, I consider it a very bad idea to move the Dinky station. The station is already too far south. To move it further, well, you might as well get rid of it.

    However, I still don’t see any huge problem with the hospital redevelopment plan, but I appreciate that local residents are lobbying for the best possible use of the site.

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