Princeton Planning Board approves redevelopment of former Packet building for medical offices and retail space

The former Princeton Packet building. Photo: Marc Monseau.

The Princeton Planning Board voted unanimously on Thursday night to approve plans for 300 Witherspoon Street, the former site of the Princeton Packet newspaper.

Resident Helena May, who bought the property and other Parket properties adjacent to the main building in 2016 for $5.4 million, is converting the space into medical offices on the first and second floors, along with retail on the first floor. Homestead Princeton, an independent gift, furniture, and home décor store, is already the retail tenant in the new first-floor retail space.

Capital Health is slated to be the anchor tenant in the office space. A spokesperson for Capital Health told Planet Princeton in June that the Hopewell-based hospital system plans to open primary care offices at the site and will offer same-day appointments for chronic and well care for children and adults. Up to seven full-time physicians could work at the site. Capital Health has more than 18 similar primary care offices across the region in Mercer, Burlington, and Bucks counties.

Another 9,800 square feet of space will be leased for offices. The plans show some of the remaining office spaces being leased to therapists.

The footprint of the building on the 1.16-acre site will not be expanded, but inside the building, more than 6,000 square feet of office space will be created, increasing the interior space from 19,780 square feet to 25,917 square feet. The building once housed a printing press and that space is being converted.

At issue during the three-hour planning board hearing was parking. May was seeking a variance to supply less parking than Princeton’s zoning regulations require. The regulations require 133 parking spaces, but May’s plans included just 63 parking spaces.

Planning board members David Cohen and Tim Quinn questioned whether there was enough parking at the site. Cohen noted that the site is not in an urban area with lots of public transit.

Bill Wolfe, the head of the town’s site plan review advisory board, said board members thought providing less than half of the required parking was too big a stretch and that granting a variance of about 70 cars was not realistic. Wolfe suggested that the planning board could use a mechanism it has in the past – land banking the other properties May owns adjacent to the Packet building – in the event that more space is needed for parking in the future. Wolfe pointed out that while Capital Health is an anchor tenant, there is no guarantee they will stay, and then the offices would be rented out for other purposes. He also expressed concerns about parking issues in the neighborhood being exacerbated and said residents in the area should have priority for non-paid street parking. The planning board disagreed with the idea of land banking properties currently used for housing.

Planning board member Mia Sacks applauded May for having less parking in her application. Sacks said the town is looking for ways to create transit-oriented development and more transit, and that this means less parking. Sacks also said the town is redeveloping the Franklin lot for housing just up the street. She said the area will “potentially have an East Village ethos. That’s the way staff and council members have been thinking about this neighborhood.”

Cohen still expressed concerns and suggested that the town wait and see what the parking demand is and conduct a study at some point. Planning board member Lousie Wilson suggested that officials wait until the building is 85 or 90 percent occupied before a study is conducted.

The planning board approved the plans and variances with an understanding that once the building is at 85 percent of occupancy, May will be required to get a traffic study done to determine whether the parking is adequate. If the result of the study shows parking is not adequate, she will have to arrange for parking alternatives so there is sufficient parking.

During the discussion, Wolfe noted that the site plan review advisory board looks at plans and how they fit in with town codes and the master plan.

Resident and planner Carlos Rodrigues said the town’s standards are “hopelessly outdated” and the board should push parking down to more realistic levels.

Cohen said the town’s master plan will be overhauled beginning next year.