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Blog: AvalonBay Proposal Does Not Fit Princeton

The following are comments made by Areta Pawlynsky of Harris Road at the Avalon Bay planning board hearing.

 

Dec. 10, 2012

I have lived in Princeton for over 20 years and, for the past 7, in the Hospital neighborhood.

I have spent many hours reviewing the extensive history of the Hospital site and more recently, AvalonBay’s proposal. My conclusion is that years of thoughtful planning by this town, its government, and the hospital are not reflected in the proposal before you.

As background for both the Planning Board and the general public present here tonight, on the screen is a reminder of some alternatives developed by the Witherspoon Street Corridor Study group, which were presented to the Planning Board on May 26, 2005.  Six options were shown for returning the hospital site to an appropriate neighborhood scale.  All of these concept plans include at least one new street, breaking the MRRO zone into smaller blocks.  They aim at reconstructing the normative neighborhood streetscape, plan, and grid.  Even the compromise Hillier plan shows the remnants of these concepts by way of a public pedestrian walkway connecting Witherspoon Street and Harris Road.

I was very interested to read the Princeton Regional Planning Board’s mission statement.  In the 6 enumerated responsibilities, no. 1 includes “to assure that all permitted development is designed so as to be as harmonious as possible with the surrounding neighborhood.”

I am a professional architect and if I were to review ONLY the materials presented by the Applicant, I don’t know how I’d be able to fulfill such a responsibility. Standard practice for Urban Design requires studies that show how a design fits within its larger context.  Especially for this scale, a 10 acre site in the center of town. There are many professional tools to accomplish this - such studies are missing from this application:
  1. Street sections typically show height + setback
  2. Figure-ground plans indicate buildings in black and everything else in white
  3. Diagrams of circulation
  4. Computer renderings showing materials
  5. 3-d massing models (either digital or material)  Here are some basic massing models which I had developed as a starting point to demonstrate AvalonBay’s massing in comparison to the neighborhood.
(This paragraph was omitted to shorten.)  In AvalonBay’s scheme, the intended “Witherspoon Street Campus” is not an urban campus.  It is 1 large building, a figure eight in plan.  The intent to reintegrate the hospital site into the existing neighborhood through sustainable, rejuvenating urban design, including affordable housing, has not been met.  

2006 Princeton Borough Code includes Design Standards under Section 17A-193B which “shall be used by all municipal agencies in reviewing application for site plan or subdivision approval in the MRRO district.”  AvalonBay’s proposal does not meet either the spirit or intent of the governing ordinance.  To name just a few specifics:

  • paragraph A.6:  “Buildings should be designed to avoid a monolithic appearance.”  Drawings show a 40 ft+ high continuous wall running along Franklin Ave.  From Witherspoon St, the wall runs 250 ft, jogs back, and then continues for another 240 ft.
  • paragraph C.3:  “Careful consideration should be given to the mass and bulk of any buildings to insure they are harmonious with their surroundings and improve the present conditions.”  Drawings show 1 building and have not demonstrated consideration of the surroundings.
  • paragraph D.1:  “Any applicant must document that the open space provides linkages between and through the development as well as the surrounding neighborhood.”  An archway from Witherspoon St permits access only to the smaller of two internal courtyards, effectively a dead-end.
  • paragraph E.4:  “A private gated community is not allowed for the site.”  The larger of two internal courtyards is not accessible to the public, rendering the largest portion of the site as a private gated community.

In conclusion, this is not just an ordinary application.  Princeton is often described as a living community and this site is as close to the heart as one can imagine.  I think about this in comparison to a key moment in Manhattan almost 50 years ago.  The demolition of Penn Station forever changed attitudes towards development.  Not in literal preservation terms, but in terms of appropriate urban design, this IS our Penn Station moment.

Areta Pawlynsky

Harris Rd

Expat Princetonian December 13, 2012 at 09:18 PM
I agree. It does seem that the developer is trying to see how much they can get away with in not honouring the requirements already laid out, and that they are trying to use the pressure tactic of "Oh, no! Time's running on on the approval process! Better rubber-stamp it so the site won't sit idle for eons!" Don't fall for it, Princeton.
Dan Daman December 14, 2012 at 02:05 PM
While I am generally all for allowing private property owners to do what they want with their own property, I think Areta Pawlynsky's comments are on-target. I live 1/3 mile from the site and I hope whatever is built there integrates with the flow up/down Witherspoon and between Witherspoon-Jefferson via Henry/Franklin . The design-presented is more about a monolith over 3-4 city blocks which pushes traffic around instead of letting it permeate and interact (unlike Palmer Square and Hinds Plaza which are all about "community"). Some of the best architecture provides public interaction with private space via plaza's, steps, entrances that invite and connect . . . while this presentation seems to shun. . I would encourage Avalon Bay to go back to the drawing board, maybe even let them raise the height of their structures to allow the same number of for-profit apartments, but re-suggest a design that was more about connecting people who live in and around the neighborhood with the people who will be living in the new development. After all, isn't that the value of buying and living in Princeton - to be connected with the neighborhood around it?

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