Those who follow local municipal matters do not generally associate Wanda Gunning with stand-up comedy. But the Planning Board Chair had quite a good joke mid-way through the latest hearing on the AvalonBay apartment plan for the former Princeton Hospital Site. During discussion about what the new road through the site would be called, Board member Jenny Crumiller jokingly suggested ‘Wanda Gunning Way’. Ms Gunning replied “No, no, you never want to put ‘gunning’ in a street name.”
That was a rare moment of levity in the 16 hours of scheduled debate and discussion about the proposal. We have been present for the whole thing, through discussions about roof trusses, gabling, ‘annunciation panels’, low-flow versus very-low-flow toilets etc etc. We have listened to all the public testimony, which very often was vehemently against the project. However, a recent mini-survey by ‘Town Topics’ of ordinary Princeton residents suggested that most local people don’t share the concerns of the objectors. That may explain why objector group ‘PCSN’ recently discontinued their campaign, citing lack of funding.
The objectors certainly made their voices heard, and deserve credit for the high-stakes strategy that plunged Princeton into legal hot water but ultimately resulted in an improved site design. But the case against the new AvalonBay plan was often based on an assumption that low-density single family homes are a better, ‘more harmonious’ use for the site. This is highly debatable. Changes in tastes and demographics have created demand for smaller housing units near downtown areas. Meanwhile, an insistence on low-density housing has required farmland throughout the region to be paved over to build car-dependent housing that creates traffic and contributes to global warming.
Last night, the long process of redeveloping the old Princeton hospital site appeared to reach a conclusion. Stretching back to 2005 at least, and arguably even further, the process of redevelopment looks to be resolved after the Princeton Planning Board voted overwhelmingly to approve AvalonBay’s revised proposal for a 280-unit apartment complex.
Significantly, no party seems likely to sue over this decision. The objector group, PCSN, who in the past have even challenged the remit of the Planning Board to adjudicate on the process, are out of cash and have thrown in the towel. Meanwhile, AvalonBay, who sued Princeton after their previous plan was rejected, appear happy because not only was their plan approved, but many of the more outlandish conditions of approval suggested by municipal boards were downgraded to ‘recommendations’, or ended up in the circular file.
Only one Board member voted ‘no’. Cecilia Birge, a newly appointed alternate, had been upgraded to voting status after a bizarre story involving regular member Julie Nachamkin. Ms Nachamkin apparently ‘volunteered to step back’ from the adjudication process after an allegation from a member of the public- the details of which have not been released- but which apparently had no merit. Ms Birge voted against the LEED-Silver / EnergyStar-rated proposal, citing concerns about ‘the historic character of the neighborhood’ and respect for the environment.
Here are statements from the Planning Board members along with their votes. We have obviously paraphrased, but this is very much the gist of what they said and is as much as could be typed while they were talking. Some of the statements were extremely revealing:
Marvin Reed, proposing the motion to pass the proposal with all variances, voted YES to approve:
“although there could perhaps be an even better fit, the current application is much better than what came before. The relevant comparison is not Plan A or Plan B, but whatever plan is on the table versus a radically expanded hospital. The hospital would have needed to expand to keep up with trends in medical practice. This would have required a 13-story building to be constructed, an additional 5-story parking garage, further use of the Harris Rd houses for commercial purposes and an additional office building on the site. Future plans, involving a brand new operating wing, would cross Franklin Avenue, to use the site across the street. They would build across the street on Henry Avenue, taking over the Packet building, and add sizable buildings along the west side of Witherspoon Street including several additional parking structures. At one point, the question of eminent domain was raised, to compel local property owners to give up their houses. There was a risk that municipal zoning could be over-ruled on court orders requiring extensive leeway given for an inherently beneficial use. That was the impetus for the current zoning. All the zoning, including the residential use-which was the preferred use- and the 280 unit maximum, was a result of ordinance the town developed.
Mildred Trotman, seconding the motion, and voting YES to approve:
I agree with Mayor Reed. I was also involved in this process at the time. We thought it was in the interests of the neighborhood, and I happen to live in the neighborhood. I also think that this final design is a MUCH IMPROVED DESIGN. I appreciate the fact that many of the public comments have been addressed, particularly the distribution of the affordable housing units, and the addition of more extra-low units.
Jenny Crumiller, voting YES to pass:
I experienced much of the history of this as a neighbor so I have a different perspective. This application culminates the hospital’s decades-long problem with the neighborhood. Their use of residential housing as offices was illegal. Their other zoning battles were deemed illegal. The hospital used its power to vilify the neighbors. The hospital supporters have spread a message through letters to the editors and at cocktail parties that the hospital was the victim of NIMBYs. The board and governing bodies did not pay attention to the neighbor’s concerns when they fought for the lowest density possible. However, I believe this plan conforms to the zoning. I think it is an improvement on the Hillier plan and Avalon Plan A. I think there are some good things about this plan. It will be much nicer to walk around than the gloomy hospital building. I look forward to more kids running around. The new neighbors will reinvigorate business in the neighborhood.
Gail Ullman, voting YES to approve:
Setting aside the history, and looking to my own goals for a sizeable number of affordable units- we’ve got that. Rental apartments walkable to recreation, schools, university etc-we’ve got that…I might have hoped for a marvelous modernist design that might have been inspiring…but people wouldn’t have liked it. I am impressed that AvalonBay has respected our Design Standards as much as possible, even when they weren’t entirely clear. I don’t love everything about this plan, but I think you really did meet us half-way and I am pleased to vote in favor.
Bernie Miller, voting YES to approve:
For me, the question has always been, ‘how can we work with the applicant within the constraints of the site use’. The constraints were clear: up to 280 units, with 56 affordable units. Beyond that, it is a question of getting the best and most appropriate site use for the community. Through this process, the applicant has listened to the public and the community, and for that reason I favor the application.
Julie Capozzoli, voting YES to approve:
The applicant’s many modifications have made a big difference. I’d like to thank SPRAB and particularly Bill Wolffe. The massing in the first iteration was maybe better than the second iteration, but I see the advantages of the second iteration. I hope AvalonBay will consider 3rd-party solar and composting.
Timothy Quinn, voting YES to approve:
<no statement, but asked for clarification about the wording of the condition on testing for heavy metals in the soil on the site>
Cecilia Birge, voting NO to deny:
I’d like to thank all the members of the public. It’s a tough vote for me. Really tough. I want to say yes. I’m a person who likes to say ‘yes’. But I do not believe this application is consistent with what was envisaged for the site. It does not match up with the big ticket items: the historic character of the neighborhood, respecting the environment etc etc.
Wanda Gunning, Chair of the Planning Board, summing up and voting YES to approve:
Thanks to all the members of the public for their highly intelligent and energetic contributions to the discussion.
Proposal APPROVED by a vote of 8-1. Meeting adjourned.