Letters: Density at Princeton Hospital Site Should Fit the Neighborhood

Dear Editor,

There is an ongoing discussion about the appropriate density for the former hospital site. Current zoning for the MRRO zone, created specifically for the site of the hospital buildings, is for 280 units or 50 units per acre, a number arrived at by estimating the number of apartments that could fit into the hospital towers. Many remember the community discussions over rezoning the site for residential use in 2004-2006 — it was said that the density would be lower if the hospital buildings came down.

What is a reasonable density if the hospital buildings do come down? I would argue that we should look at the gross density currently permitted in zoning. In the former Township, density ranges from 1.8 to 12 units/acre. In Mixed Use zones in the former Borough, like the MRRO zone, the maximum density is 14 units/acre. Density in the hospital neighborhood is lower than this. Our zoning allows densities higher than 14 units/acre only if there is 100% income restricted or age-restricted housing. In the highly-acclaimed design for the Merwick and Stanworth sites, the numerous two to three-story buildings will be built at 14 and 12 units/acre. The university designed open space and playground areas for everyone’s use and pedestrian and bike path connections between the sites and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Much of the discussion has centered on the supposed benefits of smart growth — concentrating development in the center of towns. This does not mean, however, that the higher the density the better. Architects and planners advocate designing buildings in context with their neighborhoods. The minimum smart-growth density in Massachusetts is 8 units/acre for single-family units, 12 units/acre for two- and three-family units and 20 units/acre for multi-family apartments. The 20 unit/acre density — or 112 units on the former hospital site — is already more than double the density in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Task Force is moving in the right direction by considering 39 units/acre or 220 units for the site. Unfortunately, with densities over 35 units/acre you lose a sense of having individual buildings — you get massive bulk and longruns of frontage like the plans that AvalonBay presented.

Personally, I believe that the density of the Merwick/Stanworth sites is appropriate for the former hospital site. The John-Witherspoon neighborhood, with Merwick/Stanworth on one side and the MRRO zone on the other, averages 14 units/acre. Let’s do the same for the MRRO zone: 14 units/acre or 78 units for the former hospital site. This density will allow for a development in keeping with the scale and character of the neighborhood, as required by Borough Code and the town’s Master Plan. It will allow for green open space and throughways for people to walk and bike through the block (like at Merwick/Stanworth). Green space, walkers and bikers make town living highly sustainable. Higher densities will bring more traffic, the possible busing of elementary schoolchildren, lower property values and higher taxes for Princeton residents.

Ken Gumpert


  1. The Environmental Protection Agency favors increased density because it offers housing choice, enables people to walk or bike to work or local businesses, increases affordability, broadens the tax base, and protects the environment.
    See: https://www.epa.gov/dced/pdf/density.pdf

    The housing market favors increased density, hence Avalon Bay actually tried to extend the zoning at the hospital site beyond 50 units /acre. As a business, they know that there is pent-up demand for as many units as they can build.

    Witherspoon Street is an ideal area for increased density owing to its close proximity to the town center and Princeton shopping center, transit links, and existing tall structures. 280 units, which could be accommodated in low-medium rise buildings, is entirely appropriate.

    There is no down side to density at this site. Arguments about increased traffic or ‘dwarfing the neighborhood’ are specious because the hospital was/is a tall building which brought much traffic. The only reason to oppose 280 units is because you don’t like buildings with more than 2 levels. However, that is to place your personal design preference above the benefits of increased affordability, environmental benefits, and support for local businesses that Princeton’s future needs.

    If anyone wants to know what density looks like, here is a handy PDF about density that shows buildings at different density levels. My personal view is that the site could accommodate 100 units / acre. Such developments are mid rise buildings, not skyscrapers. But given the strong feelings of certain local residents, 50 units / acre (280 units) seems like a fair compromise.

    1. It doesn’t matter that the hospital is a tall building. If it comes down, it is gone. Disappeared. Forgotten. If it comes down we don’t want another tall, or mid-rise, building on the site smack in the midst of a single-family neighborhood.

      This isn’t personal design preference. This is much deeper than that. Some people want to live in towns with 2-3 story buildings and some people want to live in cities. Both are highly sustainable ways of living according to the Philadelphia Museum of Science exhibit on climate change.

    2. SFB, have you even read the EPA report you include in your comment ? Some of the case studies cited in this paper are not relevant: this is NOT an urban area like Seattle, Portland, or Minneapolis. Probably the most similar to Princeton is the project in Davis, CA, which includes 21 single-family homes, 17 cottages, 16 duplex units, with a residential density of 17 units/acre net. This article supports REASONABLE density.

      This article also states as its basis these principles:
      1. Increase densities in APPROPRIATE LOCATIONS,
      2. Connect people and places through a COMPLETE STREET NETWORK that invites walking and bicycling and pro­vides convenient access to bus or rail,
      3. MIX USES to create a quality of life where people may choose to live near their work, walk to the local store, or bike to the library with their kids,
      4. Place parking in alternative locations to support density and CREATE INVITING PLACES TO WALK, and
      5. Create great places for people.
      (quoted verbatim, emphasis (CAPS) mine)

      As Ken says, 78 units is entirely appropriate and in keeping with the neighborhood. If people are concerned about not enough affordable housing, increase the percentage! Is the resistance to this that the hospital needs to get maximum value out of the site b/c they overextended themselves in building their current complex, with all its over the top amenities? Is it the town’s responsibility to bail them out by accepting this totally out of scale density?

    3. Thank you for the handy PDF about density. Very interesting. Are the photos all of relatively new construction? I have to say I don’t like the big mid-rise complexes. The star-like street plan with green boulevards and a central park for the 9 unit/acre Portland neighborhood looks very nice. I love NYC and San Francisco, but can’t see that in the photos presented here. Perhaps you have to be on the ground. Chicago at 152 units/acre on the lake looks great … thanks again.

  2. We have a choice.
    We can have higher density (dwelling units per acre), higher
    than permitted anywhere else in the Borough Code, higher than anywhere else in Princeton.
    Or we can have lower density, similar to the surrounding area.

    Do we want more traffic congestion?
    Higher density = More units
    More units = More cars
    More cars = Higher traffic intensity or More traffic congestion

    Do we want more air pollution?
    Do we want more respiratory problems, such as asthma?

    These three causal relationships have been proven in countless studies.
    Higher density causes increased traffic congestion.
    Increased traffic congestion causes increased air pollution.
    Increased air pollution causes respiratory problems.
    Given these proven causal relationships, can we conclude higher density may indirectly cause respiratory problems?

    Then how can we allow higher density?

    Lower density appears to be the healthy, responsible choice.

    1. “Do we want more traffic congestion?” No. We want homes where people can walk to shops and work. Not homes out among the potato fields; right here in Princeton!

      “Higher density = More units” Except that isn’t true is it? More PEOPLE = More units. The only thing that changes with density is how many fields you pave over to accommodate those people. More density = More protected green space.

      Say YES to a positive vision for Princeton: compact walkable apartments on the hospital site. Say YES to affordability, green living and economic vibrancy.

      ‘Like’ Walkable Princeton now! https://www.facebook.com/WalkablePrinceton

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