Smart-growth density yardsticks are significantly lower than current hospital site zoning

The hospital, having gone back on its promises to Princeton, no longer deserves a “density bonus” of 280 units.

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? 

Alexi Assmus
Maple St


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.  


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

David Keddie February 10, 2013 at 05:05 PM
Alexi, The key issue is to allow the supply of housing to meet the demand for walkable, environmentally-friendly living in the core of Princeton. What we need is for that tremendous cost difference that exists between walking distance housing and driving distance housing to disappear. The more people who live in the former Borough the less traffic per-capita, less energy use per-captia, and less impervious surface per-capita in the watershed. If the zoning is changed to allow the supply of housing to meet the demand then housing will be far more affordable and Princeton far more diverse. The Brookings Institute has done a recent study on how restrictive zoning keeps poorer students out of high achieving school districts through raising housing prices. This creates a situation where, "Northeastern metro areas with relatively high levels of economic segregation exhibit the highest school test-score gaps between low-income students and other students." If we wish to address educational inequality in New Jersey then we need to face the reality that our restrictive zoning is a significant cause. You can find the whole report here: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/4/19%20school%20inequality%20rothwell/0419_school_inequality_rothwell
Alexi Assmus February 19, 2013 at 01:44 PM
David, I don't understand how building and renting apartments priced higher than the current market rental rates in Princeton will decrease the rents in Princeton. Avalon's prices for their "luxury apartments" were $1600 for a studio up to $3200 for a 3-bedroom. In the Town Topics similarly-sized apartments in the downtown are regularly advertised for rent at lower prices. I understand you have had some bad experiences renting apartments in Princeton. Others have had good experiences. Perhaps the current rental apartments in Princeton don't have the newest appliances, a swimming pool, and a relationship-building situation, as I think Avalon refers to it, ... but this isn't a cost issue. I wonder what percentage of the commuters who drive into Princeton each day would rent an Avalon-type transient apartment. I agree with you that it would be a very good thing to have some of these commuters who drive into town instead living in town and walking or biking to work instead. My concern is that an Avalon-type transient housing development will provide housing for people commuting out of Princeton to corporate jobs. Avalon is used by corporate relocators. Alexi
PrincetonIQ July 21, 2013 at 06:02 PM
An entire weekend with no comment, no reply from the PCSN and its "trustees" on their change of opinion. I think it's pretty clear that this turn of events tells us everything we need to know about the three principal trustees behind this organization. As "trustees," they have a duty to explain their actions, and they haven't.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »