As Princeton University professors write letters criticizing the lack of suitable rental housing in Princeton, and affordable housing charities search for more opportunities to add housing for moderate-income families, some Princeton residents are organizing to block redevelopment of the old Princeton hospital site. The redevelopment plan, which was approved by the Planning Board in August, would add 56 affordable apartments and 224 market-rate units. Given the lack of walkable housing in Princeton (an issue which results in 44,000 daily car trips to bring Princeton employees to work), it would be a bad outcome if housing plans were blocked or downsized at this highly-suitable, walkable infill site. However, the latest court action which aims to block the redevelopment appears to have minimal chances of success.
This is not the first time that the Princeton Planning Board has been dragged into court by local residents protesting redevelopment of the old hospital site. Earlier this year, a residents’ group argued in court that the Planning Board had no right to hear the application from AvalonBay to build apartments. (The judge rejected this argument.) The previous protest group subsequently withdrew their objections, and welcomed the affordable housing that the new development would bring. Some residents were clearly not satisfied, however, and on September 27 this year, they founded a new company ‘Association for Planning at Hospital Site, LLC’, which filed a new court action to block approval of the apartments plan.
Three men, all of whom are residents of Harris Road, Princeton, are named as agents or managers of the curiously-named ‘Association for Planning at Hospital Site’. The group is incorporated as a for-profit entity, with the stated business purpose of (sic) “to do all things necessary for planning at hospital site”. (We aren’t going to name them- but the Princeton Packet already did). They are suing the developer, AvalonBay, the Princeton Planning Board, the municipality of Princeton itself, the Mayor, Princeton Council and the governing body. Their court filing was made public on the Princeton municipal website recently, as part of a resolution by Princeton Council to allocate $42,000 of local taxpayers’ money to fight the court action.
The Planning Board also faced litigation from AvalonBay, because their first application to build apartments was rejected as not conforming to the long list of ordinances and zoning regulations applicable to the site. That court action appeared delicately poised, and may have hinged on a judge’s determination of whether the original plan made it sufficiently easy for pedestrians to walk across the site. As for the latest court action, Princeton’s municipal attorney has said “we are very confident that we will prevail in court.” A quick look at the court filing shows why…
The Association for Planning at Hospital Site court action has five counts. The first count is that approval of the apartments plan was made “without any legitimate planning or environmental justification”. This is bizarre, as the Planning Board laboriously considered planning ordinances that had been developed and debated over a ten-year period. Their approval makes explicit reference of the extent to which the application conformed to the planning ordinances. Members of the local community were involved at every stage, the AvalonBay plan went through a compete redesign, and was then subject to even more revisions based on community feedback.
The second count charges that the approval was made without “a real and substantial relationship to the legitimate regulation of land use in Princeton.” Again, anyone who sat through the hours and hours of consideration of the application in Planning Board last summer (like we did) would recognize that this charge is absurd. The third count is that planning ordinances used in consideration of the approval constitute ‘spot zoning’. This is contradictory to the first two counts, but seems more pertinent. Nonetheless, the old hospital site has a distinct land use history which warrants special zoning.
The fourth count charges that the approval was unconstitutional (yep- specifically a violation of the 5th amendment) because residents would be forced to vacate their homes during demolition, and had no opportunity to discuss how they might be impacted by demolition during the planning process. This count seems particularly likely to fail, because residents had ample time to discuss their concerns before the Planning Board. Furthermore, there is no indication that residents would have to vacate their homes during demolition. The Planning Board’s approval was made subject to submission of a demolition plan, which must satisfy each of twelve different criteria. Demolition has been given substantial consideration.
The final count is that the Planning Board has no jurisdiction to consider the latest apartment plan, because they had not finalized the outcome of the first application (the one that was subject to legal action from AvalonBay). It’s not clear what the point of this charge is, because even if it sticks, AvalonBay can simply withdraw their original application, clearing the way for the Planning Board to approve the second application.
Everybody is entitled to their day in court, but this suit has little substance and attorneys looks set to benefit the most. However, even if they lose their court action, ‘Association for Planning at Hospital Site, LLC’ has already scored two victories. First, they have held up redevelopment of the site. Demolition would already be underway if it weren’t for this court case. Instead, the hospital tower stands empty, and Princeton Healthcare Systems, the owner, is losing tens of thousands of dollars each month that the site continues to be undeveloped. Second, the court case sends a chilling message to developers: ‘if you want to build apartments in Princeton, you better expect a fight.’ Plenty of developers will go develop somewhere else instead- which, we suspect, is exactly what some of the plaintiffs want.
Many Princeton residents feel strongly that the town should remain the same, i.e. no big apartment developments. Fundamentally, we have to disagree, because we see walkable housing as a public good, which ought to be planned for even when it involves some compromises. The town cannot remain frozen in time, and to maintain affordability at the low and middle end of the market, we must allow for new apartment and condo construction. Furthermore, to prevent destruction of green spaces, we must- to some reasonable extent- build up instead of out. Court battles against multi-family housing developments risk perpetuating recent trends of socioeconomic exclusion in Princeton, and increasing car dependency in the region. Let’s hope that in future, we can plan together for scalable housing that brings walkability to a greater share of the population.
What’s your take on the latest hospital site court action? How do you rate their chances of success? Would you donate to support this court battle? Or is the new park, affordable housing and LEED-Silver status of the new apartment complex enough to persuade you that it is worthwhile? Do you think that people who can’t afford to live in Princeton should just go live somewhere else? Or should Princeton be less restrictive with zoning of multi-family housing? Have your say in the comments section below!