AvalonBay Goes to Court to Challenge Town’s Decision on Princeton Hospital Site

medical centerDeveloper 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.


      1. I don’t see that being a possible outcome from the trial. I’m inclined to agree with BFS; lawyering up and going at it in court is no way to develop a town.

      2. We, the people of Princeton have been screwed by this ill-advised and clearly illegal act by the Planning Board. Incompetence and arrogance rolled up into one tidy little package.

  1. True colors of the heartless corporation showing yet again. Shame on the hospital and CEO Barry Rabner for putting our town through this. I think a boycot of the Plainsboro hospital is in order. What a sell out they are!

  2. This move should anger all of Princeton. Not just the objector group that has been against AVB all along. Should we allow a 16 Billion dollar NYSE company decide what OUR town should look like? What if this was proposed just a few blocks away in the western section? Would something like one huge square home covering an entire property ever be permitted?

  3. If I understand this correctly, if we lose this case, we’re on the hook for $2 million in costs. I really hope the town attorney and regional planning board did due diligence before turning in their report denying the application.

  4. I have read the lawsuit and I have to say I would be very interested to hear some comment from the Princeton attorney. The Avalon Bay lawyers have done a very thorough job.

  5. I have read the lawsuit and I have to say I would be very interested to hear some comment from the Princeton attorney. The Avalon Bay lawyers have done a very thorough job.

    1. You are very knowledgeable, and I am always interested to read what you write, however I am puzzled by your remark that the town is at risk for a $2M judgment if they lose the suit against Avalon. I am not a lawyer, nor a real estate developer, but it seems to me that the demand in the Avalon suit to “award “costs and fees” and “attorney’s fees” refers to any costs associated with the legal action, not the cost of doing business – site plan designs, payroll/contractor expenses, etc … Are you seriously suggesting that if Avalon wins the case and gets approvals to build in Princeton that these business costs will be paid by the municipality? I sincerely hope that this is not just scare tactics on your part based on information you know to be inaccurate because I wouldn’t respect that.

      1. Alexi, it’s a good question because from a strictly actuarial perspective we ought to weigh the potential costs and benefits of fighting the Avalon Bay suit. $2 million is AB’s estimate for total costs pertaining to the project through June 2013. I think Princeton’s maximum liability for those costs is more likely to max out around $1 million (based on 4 months x $175K + attorney fees).

        That would still represent a crippling blow to the Princeton budget and I think local taxpayers would quite rightly be in uproar. If there is little chance of winning the case, we ought to move to settle at once. (I am actually quite confident that Mayor Lempert will recognize this and make a good decision.) The AB suit is not bullet-proof but the fact that the former Borough lawyer is apparently recorded as stating that the Design Standards are unenforceable suggests to me that our case may be very weak.

        As for the comments, the Disqus comments have been doing totally strange things for the last couple of days, not sure what’s going on there.

  6. I don’t think AVB will go away even when they loose the appeal. They have promised to back out before when they were not awarded 44 extra units and yet they are still around. They will come back with some new scheme to cut a few arch ways into the boxes and call it expensive architectural design and compromise. Again I blame Barry Rabner and the UMCP for unleashing this monster on our town. They knew damn well that AVB would be bad for this location but they could not see past the check they want so badly. How ironic that a hospital is killing the town they grew up in. Shame on you! You and your greed make me sick!

  7. Laws and ordinances exist for a reason: to apply uniform, objective, and clear standards to all applicants and to prevent the personal agendas of public officials from trumping fair play. Princeton’s elected and appointed elite and their allies in this lawsuit have once again screwed the residents of Princeton and left us on the hook for a huge bill of reparations. Who wants to start a petition to force the Planning Board members and their friends in the delusional sustainable neighborhood cabal to pay for this lawsuit which our town will certainly lose?

    1. I don’t think we can blame PCSN for putting pressure on the Planning Board. It is everyone’s right to lobby their elected representatives and their appointees. The responsibility for the decision rests entirely with the members of the Planning Board. My personal opinion is that several members of the planning board were negligent in their office, and handed down judgements informed by politics instead of sound legal process. What is particularly egregious is that several board members appear to have justified voting against the Avalon Bay project despite being aware that there was no legal basis for their objections.

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