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.