At last week's Hospital Ordinance Task Force meeting, the committee heard that Council did not approve their recommendation to reduce the allowed density (number of units) at the site if the buildings are demolished.
The issue was the number of affordable housing units at “56”. Although some members of Council may remember otherwise, transcripts and memoranda nowhere support that the number “56” units of affordable housing was an original part of discussions. The discussions were around providing 20% affordable. The number “56" does not appear until fourteen months from the hospital’s first presentation (memorandum from Lee Solow to Bob Bruschi, August 30, 2006, and Marvin Reed, Borough Council minutes, September 12, 2006). Mr. Reed was very straightforward: “development of the hospital site is a ‘density bonus,’ that of 280 units [of which] 56 will be low/moderate COAH-qualifying houses.” Note: the current ordinance allows “up to 280 units.” A developer may choose to build fewer units altogether.
For whom was the density bonus created? The hospital. The hospital, having now gone back on its promises to the Princeton community, no longer deserves any “density bonus.” It contracted with the one buyer who only builds closed private communities, contrary to Princeton values, and it sold off part of the land destined for a town park.
An architect specializing in designing redevelopments in single-family neighborhoods should work with stakeholders and the neighbors to create a site plan and massing diagram to inform the choice of density. However, there are yardsticks available which strongly suggest that a density of 280 units or 50 units/acre is too high.
1. Task-force architect Areta Pawlynsky stated the view of smart-growth advocate Urban Land Institute: more than 2x the density of the surrounding neighborhood is too great a burden on a neighborhood. 2x the neighborhood density in this case is 20 units/acre or 102 units.
2. Task-force architect Heidi Fichtenbaum, presented drawings to support the opinion that redevelopment in scale and character with the neighborhood gives a maximum density of 23 units/acre or 127 units.
3. If we were to set the density at that of the surrounding neighborhood, it would be 10 units/acre or 56 units.
4. Massachusetts legislation defines anything above 8 units/acre as smart-growth density for single-family neighborhoods. In the case of the hospital site, a density above 45 units is smart growth.
5. If we want to make the hospital a site for apartments, then anything above 20 units/acre or 102 units is smart growth under Massachusetts law.
Balancing the rights and needs of the surrounding neighborhoods with those who support the building of multi-rise apartment buildings to provide housing, particularly for grad students and postdocs at the university, is important. As former mayor Joe O’Neill said, increased density is a tax on a neighborhood. The major source of jobs within walkable distance of Princeton is the university. If there is a shortage of housing for those who work at the university, shouldn’t the university be pitching in here?
Note: An integrated, contextual design process led by an architect specializing in in-fill developments in family neighborhoods may lead to a higher density than the yardsticks above suggest. Choosing a predetermined density for the former hospital site (if buildings come down), without engaging in a design process with stakeholders and neighbors that results in a site plan written into form-based code, puts Princeton at risk of another entitlement fight.
See images of Moule and Polyzoides' MaxPac Square --- 199 units on 5.5 acres with a park in the center and underground parking ---, designed for a Somerville, Massachusetts site. The plan is at a density of 36 units/acre and includes a mix of flats, townshouses, and lofts at a maximum of three-stories plus loft. One must also consider developer pressure and if a lower density might yield more humane and habitable housing.