Judge: Princeton Planning Board Has Jurisdiction Over AvalonBay Proposal

medical centerA Superior Court Judge today ruled against a citizen group that opposes the AvalonBay development in Princeton. A lawyer for the group Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods argued that the Princeton Zoning Board of Adjustment should have jurisdiction over the AvalonBay proposal instead of the Princeton Planning Board, but the judge disagreed.

Judge Mary Jacobson, using words like “silly” and “absurd” regarding some of the Sustainable Neighborhood group’s arguments,  ruled that the planning board has jurisdiction over the proposal to build  280 apartments, including 56 affordable units, at the downtown Princeton hospital site.

The group had argued, among other things, that without variances, the garage at the site would not be accessible and would need to be expanded to conform to zoning. Jacobson said the town didn’t intend to require that the garage be expanded in order to be compliant with the zoning, and said the courts should follow “common sense” rather than “literalisms and technisms.”

The Princeton Planning Board last month approved a consent agreement with AvalonBay to avoid lengthy litigation. The agreement paved the way for the developer to submit a new application for the hospital site. AvalonBay has submitted new site plans, and the planning board’s review and public hearings on the proposal will be held in late June and July.

AvalonBay is proposing to build 280 units at the 5.6 acre hospital site, including 56 affordable units. The company has redesigned its plans for the site to include two large buildings and some townhouses, instead of one monolithic building as originally proposed.

Representatives from AvalonBay will discuss the revised plans with the public at an open house from 7 to 10 p.m. on May 22nd in the Community Park School cafeteria.

Residents who oppose the development lined up at the microphone at the Princeton Council meeting Monday night to call on elected officials to “stand their ground and not give in” to AvalonBay, and to demand that the developer follow LEED certified building standards. Residents who oppose the development also said it will bring too many school children, and that the developer has a history of appealing property assessments in towns where its apartment complexes are located.


  1. I hope we can put all the anger and court cases behind us, have a look at whatever the new hospital site plan is, and make constructive suggestions. I hope that the new plan is a good one. It would be really great to get this site redeveloped. The old hospital building is really one of the ugliest in Princeton, and some modern apartments will be much appreciated by many graduate students and young professionals. There really are very few modern, multi-family residential options in Princeton, so this development could be very helpful. Then we should work on making Witherspoon St more friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians and improve walking routes to Community Park School.

    1. Sounds good in theory. Unfortunately, what likely will materialize is a traffic nightmare that hinders Princeton’s quality of life. It’s a complete fantasy that this new development will be filled with cyclists and walkers. The fact is, people are lazy. If they need to go more than two blocks, they will drive. Your point that it’s great for graduate students and professionals seems to defeat the idea of affordable housing in Princeton. I would love to see this Avalon Bay pipe dream become a reality, but experience and common sense tell me it will be one of Princeton’s greatest regrets.

      1. That’s a very pessimistic opinion and it just isn’t supported by the traffic data, which shows that among people in Princeton, 11% work from home and 35% walk or cycle to work. Grad students and professionals will take the market-rate units and then there will be 56 units of affordable housing, which I am delighted about. The hospital had 1,700 employees, of whom 1,600 lived outside of Princeton and drove in, so redevelopment of the site is going to bring far less traffic than was there before. I think you’ll find in a few years that your fears were not warranted.

    1. What are you protesting about? You haven’t even seen the plan yet and you’re already planning a ‘massive protest’? Maybe the plan will be good? Do you not think we ought to at least take a look at it before planning a protest?

      1. Issues:

        1. 280 units on the former hospital site. Architects on the Hospital Transition Task Force made clear that it should be approximately half that number to keep new buildings in scale and character with the neighborhood, as required by the Site Plan Ordinance.

        2. Increased traffic from a 280-unit development..

        3. Lack of neighborhood visioning and 3D concept plan review to achieve a large-sized infill development in a neighborhood of 235 homes.

        4. Avalon’s record of aggressive real estate tax appeals (which contributed to tax increases in Lawrence Township right next door). Will the tax revenues for this site cover the increased expenses to the municipality?

        5. AvalonBay’s bullying of municipal staff, municipal officials and residents.

        1. I dispute #1, #2 and #4. For #3, I would also like to see clear plans preferably including 3D rendering. For #5, there has been too much anger on all sides through this process and I hope for a peaceful settlement now.

          You have a right to protest but we would get more done working together than standing in a park shouting.

        2. 6. Need for LEED Gold for Neighborhoods
          to ensure a sustainable development.

          7. Need for 50% of affordable units designated for low income and 13% of affordable units designated for very low income, as per COAH guidelines for a municipality***

          8. Need for local retail so residents do not have to drive for grocery shopping, dry cleaners, coffee shop, cafe, drugstore, …

          ***Very low income. Effective July 17, 2008, every municipality became obligated to provide 13% of affordable units for very low income households. COAH encourages that 50% of those units be family units. The statute, N.J.S.A. 52:27D-329.1, does not provide that any particular development shall be required to meet such requirement. However, in this case, there does not appear to be a way in which construction since 2008 could satisfy the obligation unless the Avalon Bay and the Merwick sites were to be required to provide 13% very low income units.

          Low income unit minimum. N.J.A.C. 5:80-26.3 requires that at least 50% of all affordable units shall be low income units

        1. You are planning a protest about a plan that you haven’t even seen. If the new plan includes LEED, you’re going to look pretty silly. Let’s look at the new plan first and not pre-judge it.

  2. In addition to the jurisdictional issues, the public concern raised by the PCSN lawyer today was the residential traffic coming out of the parking garage onto the Henry Avenue Driveway and onto Henry, particularly during the morning am rush when schoolchildren are walking to school along that sidewalk. There is no sidewalk on the opposite side of Henry from the garage.

    The judge did not seem to understand the different nature of residential traffic (eg, a morning rush when people leave for work ) vs hospital traffic (spread out during the day) — and felt they were the same “use”. . She felt assured that traffic would be no worse than that generated by the hospital by relying on flawed traffic studies which failed to take into account the hundreds of employees that parked offsite and were bused into work. Nor did the traffic studies include actual historical traffic count data from Avalon apartment complexes in NJ

    Would neighbors post on how bad did the hospital traffic got going IN to the hospital parking garage between 8-8:30 am? Was there a line up of cars in the morning coming in?

    The residential traffic from a 280-unit residential development would of course be coming OUT onto Henry. I imagine a line up of cars waiting in the Henry Driveway to turn left to get out to Witherspoon during the am rush

    1. This battle to oppose new development in Princeton is exactly the reason why we have worse traffic than other towns of comparable size. 3 out of 4 Princeton town employees live in a different municipality and drive to work every morning. That is 24,000 car journeys every morning (and then the same number in the evening). The only way we can reduce traffic in the morning rush is by getting some of these people out of their cars, and the best way to do that is to make it easier for them to walk or bike to work. Apartments at the hospital site make that possible, which is why there is great advantage in adding lots of homes there.

      Neighbors who oppose walkable development because it will bring traffic have it backwards. They are contributing to 20th century car-dependent suburban living which is choking the region with traffic. If we don’t start adding homes in walkable locations, then soon we won’t be able to get around at all because of the traffic.

      The judge quite reasonably said that traffic generated by new apartments would be no greater than what was seen at the hospital. That much is obvious, but the point is even stronger: these apartments can reduce traffic by increasing the share of walking and biking vs cars for Princeton-area journeys.

      1. @SFB. You assume that the people who live at Avalon are going to be able to walk to work. Who are these people? University employees? Graduate students? The University is already expanding residential options for its graduate students & very few Avalon residents are likely to work for the University or other in-town employers. The best prediction is that Avalon will attract (a) short term renters (with jobs elsewhere) who want to send students to Princeton High School & (b) young professionals who will commute to jobs out of Princeton but want to live here because this is a desirable community. It is a fantasy to think that the residents will walk to work.
        Further, you should factor in the imminent loss of accessible mass transit to the Princeton Junction. Now over 40% of outbound Dinky users walk to the train. The University’s cockamanie plan to move the train stop will make the service unwalkable for a year and even after that will add another 700-1200 feet to the walk to the station. Bottom line: You also assume a walkable train link to Princeton Junction, but Princeton is about to lose that. So, we will have more cars on the road.

        1. I am not happy about the Dinky relocation, but what can we do? We need other solutions to traffic. The Dinky only provides transit for 1.5% of Princeton’s workforce anyway. As things stand, Princeton is a drive-in/drive-out town where 24,000 people take cars in and out to work every day. It is far more likely that some of these people will relocate to homes on the hospital site so they can walk to work than that the apartments will fill up with out-commuters. Also, evidence from other municipalities, even those with excellent schools, shows that people with kids rarely live in apartments. Anyway, if people want excellent schools, they can always get a [most likely cheaper] house in Montgomery or Plainsboro, both of whose schools are now ranked as good as or even better than Princeton.

          1. @disqus_98gMM4nW3I:disqus I don’t put great faith in the latest school rankings. Princeton has a great school system, and certainly one of the huge advantages of the hospital site is its proximity to the schools. Also, plenty of people with children live in apartments–as an affordable housing advocate surely you know this. Also, so far as I know, Princeton attracts its share of people who move here just to place their children in PHS. So, my guess is that Avalon will attract more people who want their children to walk to school than those who want to walk to work and, as well, people who drive. The University is now the major employer & Avalon is unlikely to compete with its own housing options.
            Re. the train and “what can we do?” Perhaps you should express your views publicly. This is not a done deal, and there is no reason the University should feel good about destroying the community’s in-town train service. Agree or disagree with the opponents of Avalon, at least they did not respond to what seemed like a done deal for Avalon with a shrug and a “what can we do?”

            1. I think the University is quite clear about our disgust with the Dinky move. At some point we have to move on. The objector group has wasted municipal time, and thousands of dollars of their donor’s money by launching specious court actions to disrupt redevelopment of the hospital site, and the judge has sent them packing in no uncertain terms.

              The issue of school admissions has been raised before and is a total red herring. Here is a pretty clear summary relevant to Princeton:

              1. SFB — Why does the AvalonBay Princeton Junction site have a lower yearly turnover — 40% of the residents leave each year — than the average Avalon turnover of residents at 60% a year. [Remember Avalon builds transient housing.]

                I was told by the Avalon employee that showed me around Avalon’s new Wood-Ridge site that the lower turnover in Avalon’s Princeton Junction site was due to the good school system and residents staying on at Avalon to keep their kids in school.

                It’s hard to predict the future and know what the makeup of residents will be at the proposed Avalon Princeton.

              2. Remember AvalonBay sued the Planning Board and Princeton Mayor and Council, thus creating legal bills for the municipality.

                PCSN entered the case as an intervenor representing residents interests.

        2. GAK

          Princeton is the largest job center in the region. If you look at the census statistics the former borough has more jobs than all of West Windsor Township. Nearly five times as many cars enter Princeton for work as leave. In the combined Princeton 27% walk or bike to work, in the former borough that number is over 43%. Only a third of residents of the former Borough drive to work alone. In the former borough 17% of households don’t own cars, the figure being 14% for the combined Princeton.

          If you assume 280 workers coming from the 280 new housing units and assume the exact same commute statistics as the rest of the former Borough you would get 113 walking, 10 biking, 18 by train, 3 by bus, 27 working from home, and 109 driving, though in only 100 cars because of carpooling. We could expect 48 of those 280 households to not own any vehicle. This being an apartment building with cars inconveniently located and shopping right on the street we would actually expect even higher percentages of walkers and transit users.

          Given that 80% of Princeton workers have to commute in from outside, almost all by car, you could expect that these 123 new walkers and bikers would be cars taken off the road, reducing traffic more than any increase. Even the local traffic impact of 100 cars would almost certainly be driving less distance to work, or, if commuting out of town, driving against the flow of rush hour traffic.

          Other college towns like Ithaca, State College, Cambridge, and Berkeley have similar huge percentages of walkers but have far more people living in the walkable area of their towns. This means that for the same number of jobs they have thousands fewer cars on the road compared to Princeton. Density in this location is good for traffic, not bad.

          1. @djkeddie:disqus. There is the old joke about the economist and someone else on a desert island with one can of beans. The other person asks “How do we open it?” The economist says: “Assume a can opener.”
            You make many, many assumptions about who will live in an Avalon mega-development in the heart of the small lot JW neighborhood. Maybe you are correct. Maybe not. We don’t know. But the objectors have made three unassailable points: 1. Avalon’s development is massively out of scale with its surroundings. 2. Avalon’s development, as denied by the PB, did not conform with the ordinance design standards. 3. The PB did not approve the application, and Avalon appealed and has the burden of showing that the approval was incorrect.
            No one who is not utterly naive believes that the sale to Avalon represented anything more than a decision by the hospital to sell to the highest bidder, regardless. Princeton subsidized the hospital for years, and Princeton deserved better from a hospital that continues to bear its name.

            1. I agree that the hospital’s motivation is to sell to the highest bidder. I personally don’t take issue with that, especially since I welcome the added apartments. As to the proposed development being out of scale with the neighborhood I don’t agree. Obviously if there hadn’t been a 510,000 square foot hospital then the zoning wouldn’t have been written for 300,000 square feet of housing. Had the zoning allowed for less than that then the hospital would have sued successfully. The judge at the hearing yesterday explicitly rejected the argument that the presence of the massive hospital, a very intensive use in her words, was irrelevant to ongoing development.

              The planning board may not have approved the application but they clearly thought their legal position was weak given the consent decree which seems to pave the way for approval. The town can delay the process through spending taxpayer money on litigation but the land-use law protects the property rights of the owner. The judge ruled the application needed no variances which makes it a pretty much open and shut case in court, especially given the affordable housing component. The town knows this which is why they’ve come to an agreement which will allow the town to avoid further legal fees and the applicant further delays.

              I definitely agree that my analysis is a matter of assumptions but at least they’re assumptions drawn from the census. People often claim everyone in Princeton drives, when 27% walk or bike to work. They claim most commute to route one when the flow of commuters is the other way round. They claim density causes traffic when our extremely low-density region, Princeton is half the density of Houston, has gridlock. They say medium-rise apartments will be a traffic catastrophe when we can see other college towns welcoming such apartments and having less traffic in absolute terms according to census data. Berkeley or State College are six times the population density of Princeton yet far more livable. That’s how I view it at least. We’ll have to see how it all pans out.

              1. @djkeddie:disqus. There is a significant difference between a large hospital in a residential neighborhood and a similarly sized apartment complex. The hospital was an inherently beneficial use under NJ zoning law. The hospital was also a public accommodation–open to anyone who wanted to walk through or in its doors. The hospital also was subject to federal/state charity care requirements that (in theory) obligated to provide medical care to all, regardless of ability to pay. The reason that such an entity gets favorable property tax and zoning treatment is that it serves the public.
                Avalon builds apartments for profit and even its “affordable” units are priced way above the ability of people with low incomes to pay. The economic benefits inure to its shareholders and the cost of diminution in the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods will be borne by the neighbors and by Princeton taxpayers. The zoning that permitted Avalon to build at high density resulted from a of bait and switch argument way back when: The hospital said the B wing would be preserved and reused. This is how the density was calculated.
                I don’t know why you think the hospital could have sued had it not gotten the particular zoning. Certainly, the hospital was not entitled to zoning that would preserve the B-wing density even if the B-wing was torn down. Note also that the community subsidized the hospital foryears through property tax exemptions, even though in its final decades 80% of those served by it came from outside of Princeton.
                We agree on one point: Princeton is now suffering from gridlock. You are a dreamer, I think, to believe that large scale residential development like Avalon will diminish the gridlock. This is, after all, New Jersey. Even people who live on Moore STreet and work on Witherspoon sometimes drive to work.

                1. @19481cbef7a82ea58434debcec159c00:disqus

                  My understanding of land-use law is that even though the hospital grew to such density because of its inherently beneficial use, it nonetheless would be entitled to sell the property without diminution of the density of use. That could be inaccurate but that’s hows it’s been described to me. The town doesn’t have the right to downzone existing use without it being a “taking” that would need to be compensated, even if the move is from inherently beneficial to merely for-profit. Again, my impression is that from the court’s perspective the neighbors and town have lived with that scale of density on that site for decades and have no right to regulate it lower without compensation.

                  In any case, I don’t think the proposed density would cause a diminution of quality of life in the neighborhood. First of all the new use will be far less intensive than the old, as I can say from the personal experience of hearing ambulance sirens going around the corner outside our apartment on Vandeventer for years. In any case the density found in the former borough increases property values and brings amenities. The house across from ours on Vandeventer sold for $1.5 million at the height of the housing bust, despite the presence of so many businesses, apartments, and traffic on the street. The premium paid to be close to the amenities that downtown density brings is huge. We looked at an apartment in an old house on Spring St., in poor condition, that rented for $2400/month, as much as a small house a half mile up Moore street.

                  In any case, Witherspoon, Moore, and Jefferson are mini-highways bringing the tens of thousands of workers and visitors into the downtown. I don’t think it’s utopian to compare Princeton with other similar towns that have much greater density and significantly fewer cars on their streets. If we had the same built environment as West Windsor, where 1% walk or bike to work and only 2% don’t own cars, then we would add thousands of cars in place of our thousands of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. On the other hand, if we had the density of Ithaca or Cambridge we would take thousands of cars off our streets. Princeton is the largest job center in the region but is even more a center for amenities, with four times as many car trips coming in for non-work related reasons as for work. One thing is for sure, by forcing absolutely all growth for the last sixty years outside the walkable core we have maximized the need for cars and made our traffic problems far worse than comparable towns. It’s time for a shift away from the failed, low-density, car-oriented policies of the past in favor of a future where walking, bicycling, and transit are real options.

                2. The site use plan permits 280 units. It makes no mention of the hospital building being reused. 280 units is good because it enables walking and cycling. Adding homes in central Princeton makes walking and cycling easier. This whole thing is not that complicated.

            2. @19481cbef7a82ea58434debcec159c00:disqus @djkeddie:disqus explained that his assumptions are based on information about demographics and commuting patterns in Princeton. Unless you’ve got a better suggestion, I’d say that’s a pretty good base for discussion. Please stop repeating this baloney that the AvalonBay plan is ‘massively out of scale with the surroundings’. In case you haven’t noticed, there is a huge 8-level hospital building right there, which has been in the neighborhood for decades.

              1. The hospital is coming down. The Site Plan Ordinance requires that any NEW buildings be in scale and character with the neighborhood. (The hospital buildings were grandfathered in so to speak if they remained.) Avalon Plan A was completely new construction and was not in scale and character with the neighborhood.

                1. Although the Empire State Building would be out of scale and character with the neighborhood, a 4-5 level apartment buildings would be perfectly well in scale. Witherspoon Street already has buildings that height, so this is really a non-issue. Avalon A was rejected for lack of pedestrian linkages, not for being out of scale.

                  1. I like your dramatic touch SFB — but honestly check out Avalon A in these 3D models by professional architect. Avalon A is out of scale and character with the neighborhood. p.s. Didn’t forget you taught me how to add images — thanks again!

                    1. These images show that the previous plan was not out of scale for the neighborhood. I see a building which is incrementally taller than the surrounding single family homes.

          2. Several variance issues (eg, C variance for less open space than 20%) still need to be heard if there are further hearings in this case. These variances did not require a change in jurisdiction and could have been granted by the Planning Board, but the applicant did not apply for them. That is why they weren’t argued at yesterday’s hearing. In the case of the C-variances, the PB does not oppose the PCSN position that they were required, as they did for the D-variances.

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