In a split vote, the Princeton Regional Planning Board rejected developer AvalonBay’s proposed apartment complex for the former downtown hospital site, arguing the plan does not meet design standards or the spirit of the zoning.
The board voted 7-3 to deny approvals for the plan to build 280 apartments on the site, with board members Lance Liverman, Valerie Hayes and Peter Madison in the minority. The three said though they don’t necessarily like the plan, they feel it meets the zoning requirements and that AvalonBay would prevail if the case goes to court.
Board member Bernie Miller said the plan was disturbing and differed from earlier concepts for the site. “I have a queasy feeling that there has been a bait and switch here,” Miller said, referring to the zoning that was approved for the hospital site several years ago. He said negatives of the plan outweigh the positives of the 56 affordable housing units the development would bring.
“Technically it’s not a gated community, but it is the essence of a gated community,” board member Janet Stern said. The zoning for the site prohibits gated communities.
Representatives from AvalonBay and the hospital declined to comment to reporters after the vote.
“This is a joke. This is a joke. I’ve never seen anything like this,” AvalonBay representative Ron Ladell said after the meeting to a planning board member who wished him luck in court and told him he had a good lawsuit.
Before he cast his vote, board member Peter Madison said the application was disturbing but he could not find legal grounds to reject it.
“The previous developer was going to built condos, but then the Wall Street debacle happened and that was no longer viable. The development became apartments because apartments are in high demand,” Madison said. “The previous concept has gone away. The applicant has been very shrewd about the whole thing. As much as I don’t like the project, I have serious concerns that AvalonBay is in a very strong legal position. I believe if they appeal, the case will be overturned.”
“I’ve come to the same conclusion about an appeal in court,” board member Valerie Hayes said. “Sure, this is not what people envisioned. But there is not enough affordable housing in Princeton, and I don’t want to see the development of the site delayed.”
But board member Marvin Reed said the board owed it to the neighbors of the hospital site to do the right thing and reject a design that did not fit their vision for the site.
Board member Jenny Crumiller, who served on a design standards committee that worked with AvalonBay last year, said AvalonBay was not flexible about making changes.
“It was apparent they had a design to fit a model, and they were going to do things the AvalonBay way and not the Princeton way,” she said. “They did tweak it but they did not change it much. They are refusing to stray from their brand and realize Princeton’s uniqueness. We have standards to protect our old-fashioned neighborhoods.”
Board chairwoman Wanda Gunning said although she felt the application conforms to the zoning, it is not the kind of development she ever hoped to see in Princeton.
“I cannot bring myself to vote for something monolithic like this,” she said. “This is one giant building. If we accept this, there will be a lot of others like this sprouting up in Princeton.”
Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore said the plan does not fit in with Princeton’s values and that corporate products should not be the new standard. “There is the letter of the law, and then there is the spirit of the law,” she said in a lengthy speech just before the vote.
The vote came just before 1 a.m. in the last of six hearing about the project over the last several weeks. Testimony in the case totals more than 30 hours. A resident group called Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods hired two lawyers and and expert to testify in the case, and dozens of residents lined up at the meetings to express their opposition to the project.
Resident Minnie Craig questioned last night why AvalonBay wants to include a private pool in the project. She said the developer should instead give vouchers to residents to use the community pool across the street. She also said even the affordable units would not be affordable for many lower income people.
Resident Ann Yasuhara said while she would feel comfortable as white woman going into the proposed courtyard for the development, others might not. “Would a family from Birch Avenue feel welcome in that courtyard?”
Resident Ronald Nielsen said the site should be developed by a local developer so that the revenue is put back into the Princeton economy.
“I do not think a sprawling development with no retail space belongs in the center of our community,” resident Stephanie Chorney said. ” We should not lose a whole block for exclusive private use.”
Resident Martha Friedman said from her property she would be looking at a brick wall if the project is built.
“It would be unsightly,” she said. “And people outside the community will be coming into the community. They don’t know anything about our town. I am concerned we will have people who will drive into town, go into their apartments, and leave town. They won’t walk on our roads, and won’t contribute anything to our town.”
Ladell said the Princeton Borough and Princeton Township zoning and planning staff all agreed the plan conforms with the zoning standards and master plan.
“And your own independent environmental expert determined there was no contamination at the site,” he said. “It’s ironic that after all these meetings, hearings and review letters, not once did anyone on staff assert that the project needed any variance or isn’t conforming.”