Developer AvalonBay has filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the Princeton Planning Board’s rejection of the company’s proposal to build an apartment complex at the downtown hospital site on Witherspoon Street.
The lawsuit, filed yesterday, names the Princeton Planning Board, the town of Princeton, the mayor and the governing body as defendants.
AvalonBay contends that the planning board’s decision violated the Mount Laurel Doctrine on affordable housing, and that the denial was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and not supported by the evidence that was presented during half a dozen public hearings on the project.
The company is requesting that the courts reverse the planning board’s decision, declare the AvalonBay application approved, and award the developer costs and legal fees associated with the denial and lawsuit.
A spokesman for AvalonBay declined to comment on the suit today. Princeton HealthCare also declined to comment, noting that the hospital is not a partyt in the lawsuit.
AvalonBay proposed building 280 apartment units on the 5.6 acre property, with 56 of the units set aside as affordable units. The company has spent more than $1 million on the project so far and expects the amount to reach $2 million, according to the suit. The company is paying Princeton HealthCare $175,000 a month to maintain the site. AvalonBay’s contract to purchase the site expires June 30.
In the lawsuit, AvalonBay asserts that the planning board was biased, treating the developer as an “unwelcome corporate outsider” even though AvalonBay was willing to fully comply with all requirements of Princeton’s site plan and zoning ordinances, municipal land use law, and Princeton’s affordable housing requirements.
When the application was rejected, some planning board members said Princeton had a distinct character and AvalonBay’s design did not fit in with “the Princeton way.”
“The Princeton way typically involves the approval of multi-family developments without providing anything approaching the required 20-percent set aside for affordable housing,” the lawsuit reads.
AvalonBay argues that Princeton has dodged its obligations under the New Jersey Constitution, the Fair Housing Act, the Mount Laurel Doctrine, and Princeton’ own ordinance. According to the lawsuit, only six units out of 184units built in Princeton Borough over the last 20 years have been designated affordable units. The municipality was sued by a developer in 1984 over non-compliance with its affordable housing obligations, and a 20-percent set aside for affordable housing units was mandated as a result of the case. AvalonBay claims that none of the projects have complied, with the average set aside being two percent. AvalonBay also argues that the 56 affordable units it would provide are an integral part of Princeton’s fair share housing plan.
Opponents of the project, many of them residents of neighborhoods near the hospital, packed the public hearings about AvalonBay’s proposal. A group called Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods challenged the project and hired lawyers and experts to challenge the plan. The group expressed concerns about the density at the site, the design, and possible environmental issues on the property.
One sticking point was the inclusion of a pool on the property. Residents also wanted a building that was not monolithic, and said more public entryways should be built so that the public could cut through the property to the other side. The group also challenged AvalonBay’s open space proposal for the plan and argued it was insufficient. Some residents and officials said AvalonBay was trying to build a gated community in Princeton.
The zoning expressly permitted swimming pools, AvalonBay lawyers said. “There were no gates of fences planned,” the suit says. AvalonBay also argues the project met all zoning requirements, and that Princeton’s design standards were vague and unenforceable.
The lawsuit quotes several elected officials and planning board members from the hearings, using the officials’ comments to back up AvalonBay’s position.