Barry Rabner, President of Princeton Healthcare System, the operator of University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro (UMCPP, formerly known as ‘Princeton Hospital’), was quoted this week in the Princeton Packet (potential paywall) on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the hospital’s move from Princeton to Plainsboro. Mr Rabner spoke about the emotion and excitement among hospital staff regarding the move, which ended a 90-year history of medical care in central Princeton:
“Nine years of planning and 18 months of planning for the move and the fact it was all done and done well — it became a very positive, emotional experience for people, so much that they still talk about it a year later.”
The new hospital, seen in the photo above, is an incredible, modern, facility. It is now recognized as one of the top 100 hospitals in the country, and the staff are dealing well with the few bugs that came up during the move, all while patient numbers are increasing.
On the face of it, the hospital move has been a huge win for everybody concerned. Local people get to benefit from a state-of-the-art medical center, Princeton Healthcare System has space to expand and modernize, and the town of Princeton gets to redevelop the hospital site as much-needed housing a few minutes walk from Palmer Square. As we know, Princeton has a huge shortage of housing, demonstrated by the fact that housing costs up to double the average of surrounding municipalities, and 3 out of 4 Princeton workers drives into town from other places in Central Jersey ad beyond. What’s more, the hospital site is an excellent place to add homes, because it is served by public transit (NJ Transit buses pass right in front) and is within easy walking/biking distance of stores and workplaces:
To ensure that redevelopment went smoothly, the Princeton hospital staff engaged Princeton Future, renowned local architect J. Robert Hillier, and members of the Princeton community to set a framework for how the former hospital site on Witherspoon Street could be used. Based on a series of public meetings, ordinances for the re-use of the site were enacted, way back in 2006. Despite some false starts relating to the economic fiasco of 2008, the hospital site was eventually sold to AvalonBay, who proposed to build an apartment complex on the site.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly, but this being Princeton, problems soon came to light when AvalonBay’s plan for redevelopment was unveiled. The Princeton Regional Planning Board, after an extraordinary series of meetings in the second half of 2012, rejected the application for redevelopment, citing inadequate conformity to the site use ordinances. AvalonBay subsequently sued in Mercer County Court, challenging the validity of the Planning Board decision. We summarized the arguments back at the start of March, at which point we considered it a finely balanced legal case, which could possibly have been won by either side.
Fortunately the case never came to court. AvalonBay instead worked behind the scenes with officials from Princeton Planning Board to revise their plan to attempt to address the concerns that led to denial of the first application. This plan is set to be revealed to the public tonight, at Community Park Elementary School, from 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. The new plan features five buildings, including several townhouses along Franklin Terrace, instead of just one building as was envisaged with the previous application. Numerous green design features have been added such that the development reaches LEED-Silver status. Furthermore, the new design will create a new, publicly-accessible park for local residents at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Franklin Terrace, with a new pedestrian route linking Franklin Terrace with Henry Avenue.
Although the process for redevelopment of the hospital site has been somewhat painful, it looks like Princeton is set to get a very useful new development that will offer a choice of new, walkable housing to people who currently struggle to find homes in Princeton. The new AvalonBay development is also likely to yield a significant benefit to Princeton taxpayers in terms of ratable property, based on the proven revenue benefits of multi-family dwellings. The new development will also bring 56 units of COAH-certified affordable housing, a significant bonus in a town that struggles to provide homes for low- and moderate-income workers.
Despite the many benefits of hospital relocation and site redevelopment, it seems that a group of Princeton residents is planning to continue to oppose the process. ‘Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods’ (PCSN), a local lobby group, has been pressing municipal officials to ban AvalonBay from attempting to redevelop the site. Although it would be unlawful for the Planning Board to discriminate against a particular company, PCSN have joined forces with the SEIU union to march in the street with placards to oppose AvalonBay’s involvement in hospital site redevelopment. PCSN also solicited donations from Princeton residents to mount a court challenge to the Planning Board’s authority to rule on hospital site re-use, and to lodge a list of supposed variances required for redevelopment. The judge threw out the whole lot, calling several of the objector group’s arguments ‘silly’ and ‘absurd’. This setback does not seem to have discouraged PCSN, and before even seeing the new AvalonBay plan, there is talk of ‘a massive protest’ in Community Park, potentially timed to coincide with the public display of the new AvalonBay plan.
It’s true that some residents feel uneasy about adding new homes on the hospital site, but we should recall that New Jersey in general is not providing the walkable homes that many people nowadays desire. Concerns about traffic do not reflect the reality of traffic flow in Princeton, which is that the vast majority of cars come from commuters who drive into Princeton from elsewhere because we haven’t added enough residential units here. The benefits of redevelopment vastly outweigh the risks. People who live in walkable neighborhoods have been shown in studies to exhibit increased levels of trust in their neighbors, and increased community participation. New residents at the hospital site are likely to be advocates for walking and bike improvements because they will be invested in our community as a place to live, not a place to drive through. And they will support stores and restaurants in central Princeton, providing a helpful boost to local business.
Whereas legitimate criticism of hospital site re-use is useful, the type of intransigent opposition that refuses to see the benefits of redevelopment on the terms of the 2006 community agreement is unhelpful and serves only to waste municipal time and money. Removal of asbestos from the crumbling hospital tower, demolition of the old buildings, and rebuilding is estimated to take years. Many of us who live nearby would like to see this process started expeditiously, so that the existing, derelict eyesore can be made part of history.Princeton Healthcare System are already losing $200,000 per month on maintaining the old hospital site, as the motives of hospital officials and municipal officials have been publicly attacked in community meetings and letters to local newspapers.
Many of the objectors seem to see redevelopment as a battle of ‘us’ residents versus soul-less developers and negligent bureaucrats. This is not the case. Hospital site redevelopment benefits everybody in the community, including current and future residents, Princeton Healthcare System, and-yes- the developer too. All of us stand to gain. Our municipal officials have shown balance and good judgement in balancing angry voices from local residents with the threat of costly litigation and the benefits of future redevelopment. It is now up to those of us who support orderly hospital site redevelopment to give constructive input and see the process through to a mutually-beneficial conclusion.
Public presentation of the new plan for redevelopment of the Witherspoon Street hospital site will take place at the east cafeteria of Community Park Elementary School, 372 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, Wednesday May 22, 2013, from 7 p.m. – 10 pm. Q&A with Jon Vogel, vice-president of AvalonBay will follow presentations at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.