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Task Force Members Favor Reducing Number of Units Allowed at Downtown Princeton Hospital Site

medical centerA task force created by the Princeton governing body to make changes to the zoning for the downtown hospital site is considering recommending that the number of housing units allowed in any future development at the Witherspoon Street property be reduced.

The existing zoning, created several years ago in anticipation of the hospital move, allows for 280 units, including 54 affordable units. At two task force meetings this week, task force members debated what the right number of housing units should be. Most members said 280 is too many. Some suggested 220 should be the maximum. Others pushed for even less.

Mayor Liz Lempert told the task force today that its charge was to keep the density and the number of affordable units. Municipal lawyer Ed Schmierer added that as the density for the site falls, it will become more difficult for a developer to subsidize the affordable units, which are supposed to make up 20 percent of the development.

But other officials like Councilman Bernie Miller said the number of units needs to be re-evaluated.

“What got me to reconsider the number is the realization that a lot of the issues I had were a result of the number of units we were trying to put on the 5.6 acres,” Miller said.

But a few members of the audience of about 20 people who attended a noon public meeting today urged the town not to slash the number of units.

“I’m concerned about the loss of affordable housing because of any density reduction,” resident Hendricks Davis said. “The task force needs to be very careful and thoughtful in its rationale for changing the density for this site. I listened to the comments at planning board meetings and the proposal by the current developer, and I think a more sensitive developer could achieve the 56 affordable units along with a sensitive thoughtful, creative, residential development of the site, and commercial or small business, as well as open space. I would encourage the task force and planning board to be very thoughtful about changing the density so radically.”

Resident David Keddie said there is a desperate shortage of affordable rentals, and notied that studio apartment rentals with no parking in downtown often rent for up to $1,600.

“Many people who work or study at the university want to live where a walkable lifestyle is possible. There is a tremendous demand for it,” Keddie said. “If I lived where the current hospital site is, I’d walk instead of driving. My wife would walk to the Dinky instead of driving to the Hamilton train station so she could find parking. It’s good from an environmental perspective, and many singles and childless couples prefer the lifestyle at an apartment complex. A large population would make the area lively.”

Sheldon Sturges of Princeton Future pointed to a creative affordable apartment project in New York City that has been developed by the Bloomberg administration.

“We need affordable places for people to live,” Sturges said. “Most of us sitting here have gray hair. We bought in when it was a lot cheaper in Princeton. We need housing for potters, jazz musicians, artists. We need to work a lot harder at keeping the unit count up in the area. We ought to have a plan, not just for this zone. There are a lot of us who want to live here in another 20 years, but it’s getting crazy. We can do something and work this out though.”

The task force will report back to the council next week. The task force has recommended that pools be prohibited at the site as well. Some members are also proposing that the amount of publicly accessible open space on the site be a minimum of 30 percent.

In December, the local planning board rejected developer AvalonBay’s plans for an apartment complex at the site.

AvalonBay extended its contract for the site, which expired Dec. 31, and the national apartment developer could consider challenging the planning board decision in court, filing revised plans, or dumping the project. AvalonBay has 45 days from denial to appeal a decision, but the planning board did not “memorialize”, or formally ratify, the AvalonBay decision at its January meeting. AvalonBay will have to wait until that is done to make its next move.

The task force was created at the first business meeting of the new Princeton council last week. Members include: Heidi Fichtenbaum, Areta Pawlysky, Gail Ullman, Marvin Reed, Joseph Weiss, William Wolfe, Jenny Crumiller, Liz Lempert, Bernie Miller, and
Lee Solow.

After the Council reviews the recommended zoning changes, the planning board would then review them again before the Council officially approves them. The task force is racing to make the changes, and has held three meetings over the last week.

“What is the rush here,” Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller asked at the Tuesday task force meeting.

“The initial directive by mayor was to have something for the next council meeting,” Miller said. “The next meeting we will give a status report. We will try to have a draft for the Feb. 4 Council meeting.”

The task force will make recommendations in the short term about the residential part of the site, Miller said. Later the task force will review the zoning as a whole. Officials said they feel an urgency to change the zoning because they fear that new plans could be filed for the site. Any zoning changes made after a developer files plans are not applicable to that developer. The developer must follow whatever zoning is in place at the time the plans are filed.

“In the first phase we need to clarify, solidify, and make certain that what we put in the zone is what the consolidated community is looking for in what is broadly called the residential part of tract,” Miller said. “If the need exists and time permits, we will look at the entire site, maybe even some things beyond the entire site on Franklin Avenue. The goal is to get something to the Council in the short term, talking about what believe the community says it wanted. The reason for doing that is the concern about the time of submission by a developer and what might happen next.”

Mark Solomon, the lawyer for Princeton HealthCare, said he has concerns about how all the proposed changes would work together.

“If you recall, at the first meeting I said please be sure it works,” Solomon said. “I have serious doubts it works when you put together the open space changes, the setbacks, and everything else. When it is all done, what do you have? We spent years discussing the density that belongs here. This is a 100- or 200-year opportunity you have here, and you are squandering the opportunity. You are defaulting to what you are comfortable with. Seize the opportunity and do something more creative. At the end of the day you are going to get another high-end development, or the housing you said you wanted for middle income, workforce, and affordable units…You have more work to do.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • krystalknapp

    You could write a letter addressed to the Princeton Council and Planning Board and send it care of the clerk at the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon St.

  • SFB

    Is it possible to make a written submission to the Planning Board about this issue? Or is it better just to write to the individual members? It’s difficult for working people to attend the meetings.

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