Proposed Density Of Former Hospital Site is Too High

Significantly lowering proposed density of former hospital site is important because building high-density apartment buildings in Princeton will negatively affect our neighborhoods for decades to come


To the Editor:

There is an ongoing discussion about the appropriate density for the former hospital site. Current zoning for the MRRO zone, created specifically for the site of the hospital buildings, is for 280 units or 50 units per acre, a number arrived at by estimating the number of apartments that could fit into the hospital towers.  Many remember the community discussions over rezoning the site for residential use in 2004-2006 --- it was said that the density would be lower if the hospital buildings came down.

What is a reasonable density if the hospital buildings do come down? I would argue that we should look at the gross density currently permitted in zoning. In the former Township, density ranges from 1.8 to 12 units/acre.  In Mixed Use zones in the former Borough, like the MRRO zone, the maximum density is 14 units/acre.    Density in the hospital neighborhood is lower than this.  Our zoning allows densities higher than 14 units/acre only if there is 100% income restricted or age-restricted housing. In the highly-acclaimed design for the Merwick and Stanworth sites, the numerous two to three-story buildings will be built at 14 and 12 units/acre.  The university designed open space and playground areas for everyone’s use and pedestrian and bike path connections between the sites and the surrounding neighborhoods. 

Much of the discussion has centered on the supposed benefits of smart growth --- concentrating development in the center of towns. This does not mean, however, that the higher the density the better.  Architects and planners advocate designing buildings in context with their neighborhoods.  The minimum smart-growth density in Massachusetts is 8 units/acre for single-family units, 12 units/acre for two- and three-family units and 20 units/acre for multi-family apartments.  The 20 unit/acre density -or 112 units on the former hospital site- is already more than double the density in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Task Force is moving in the right direction by considering 39 units/acre or 220 units for the site.  Unfortunately, with densities over 35 units/acre you lose a sense of having individual buildings -you get massive bulk and long-runs of frontage like the plans that AvalonBay presented.

Personally, I believe that the density of the Merwick/Stanworth sites is appropriate for the former hospital site. The John-Witherspoon neighborhood, with Merwick/Stanworth on one side and the MRRO zone on the other, averages 14 units/acre. Let’s do the same for the MRRO zone: 14 units/acre or 78 units for the former hospital site. This density will allow for a development in keeping with the scale and character of the neighborhood, as required by Borough Code and the town’s Master Plan. It will allow for green open space and throughways for people to walk and bike through the block (like at Merwick/Stanworth). Green space, walkers and bikers make town living highly sustainable. Higher densities will bring more traffic, the possible busing of elementary schoolchildren, lower property values and higher taxes for Princeton residents.


Ken Gumpert


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Alexi Assmus January 31, 2013 at 02:52 AM
If you would like to see the densities of the neighborhoods and streets surrounding the former hospital site, click on the table above. They are in the range of 10-14 units/acre with the exception of Clay Street which is 24 units/acre. Thanks Ken for doing all this research and making the comparisons. It is very hard to justify a density at the hospital site of 50 units/acre if the hospital buildings are demolished. Part of the land that was to be a park (shown to the Planning Board and Borough Council in 2006 in a concept plan drawn by the hospital's consultant architect, during the rezoning of the site ) --- has been sold by the hospital and will remain an office building. The promised park was part of the deal the town made with the hospital when they were given a density much higher than the surrounding neighborhoods. I agree Ken -- Merwick and Stanworth are great site plans. We have the university to thank for that.
SFB January 31, 2013 at 03:46 AM
Respectfully, the density in the neighborhood is on average too low. People can't find homes in Princeton and must live elsewhere and drive into Princeton. This is why traffic keeps getting worse and Princeton businesses lose out to Route 1 malls. In the 21st century, a greater mixture of density is favored because it offers housing choice, enables people to walk or bike to work or local businesses, increases affordability, broadens the tax base, and protects the environment (see link below). Witherspoon Street is an ideal area for increased density owing to its close proximity to the town center and Princeton shopping center, transit links, and existing tall structures. 280 units, which could be accommodated in low-medium rise structures, is entirely appropriate. If anyone is interested in reading about the benefits of density in neighborhoods (don't just take it from me), please take a look at the following report from the Environmental Protection Agency 'Density in Your Community': http://www.epa.gov/dced/pdf/density.pdf
Robin Reed January 31, 2013 at 12:33 PM
SFB, have you even read the EPA report you include in your comment ? Some of the case studies cited in this paper are not relevant: this is NOT an urban area like Seattle, Portland, or Minneapolis. Probably the most similar to Princeton is the project in Davis, CA, which includes 21 single-family homes, 17 cottages, 16 duplex units, with a residential density of 17 units/acre net. This article supports REASONABLE density. This article also states as its basis these principles: 1. Increase densities in APPROPRIATE LOCATIONS, 2. Connect people and places through a COMPLETE STREET NETWORK that invites walking and bicycling and pro­vides convenient access to bus or rail, 3. MIX USES to create a quality of life where people may choose to live near their work, walk to the local store, or bike to the library with their kids, 4. Place parking in alternative locations to support density and CREATE INVITING PLACES TO WALK, and 5. Create great places for people. (quoted verbatim, emphasis (CAPS) mine) As Ken says, 78 units is entirely appropriate and in keeping with the neighborhood. If people are concerned about not enough affordable housing, increase the percentage! Is the resistance to this that the hospital needs to get maximum value out of the site b/c they overextended themselves in building their current complex, with all its over the top amenities? Is it the town's responsibility to bail them out by accepting their demand for this totally out of scale density?
Dr. Daniel A. Harris January 31, 2013 at 12:56 PM
Ken Gumpert's letter is smart. The fabric of a neighborhood takes decades to develop and should not be rashly destroyed. It's clear that Princeton Hospital got a density of 280 (50 units per acre) based ONLY on the premise that the hospiital towers would be kept. If the towers are razed, the ballgame changes entirely. SFB's letter and the EPA document on "Density in Your Community" that he cites are both misguided: 1) density cannot be considered without reference to building height, and many illustrations of supposedly 'smart growth' in the EPA document show matter of "mixed use development," combining residential with (local) commercial, so that people DO NOT HAVE TO DRIVE, waste gas, fossil fuels. Anything that goes up on the hospital site should have a non-residential commercial component, and that is what the Hospital Task Force is now working to incorporate. You can't simply say, as SFB does, "the density in the neighborhood is on average too low"---as if 2.5 story homes should be razed and the idiot planners should start all over again. Neighborhoods evolve over time. Radical neighborhood disruption, as Ken Gumpert illustrates so well, would be a tragic error on the part of planners. The WILL AND DESIRE of live people inhabiting the neighborhood has been to RETURN the hospital site to appropriate density as measured by the neighborhoods themselves.
Cecil Marshall January 31, 2013 at 01:35 PM
Thank you, Ken, for respecting the character of this quiet, low-density suburban neighborhood. This site is a block away from a low-rise elementary school. My understanding of the original negotiations (which I attended) was that Hillier was given permission to build *up to*, as in maximum number, of units if retaining the two towers which involves reusing two old buildings which are set far back from the street. In retrospect, this was a mistake which haunts us to this day. Every parent from that area will drive every student to JW Middle School and Princeton High School until the day that the student receives his/her own car, and drives herself. Students on Moore Street are both driven by parents and drive themselves to be a block closer to the high school. The additional traffic of 280 households would be unsafe and unsupportable. 122 is a far more community-appropriate number. SFB, if you are not ashamed of your positions, why not come out of hiding? So full of False Bravado?
Alexi Assmus January 31, 2013 at 02:32 PM
Cecil -- our central Princeton neighborhoods are actually OLD-FASHIONED SMART GROWTH. They are small-lot neighborhoods and not considered low-density. Massachusetts smart-growth legislation defines smart-growth in a single-family neighborhood at anything over 8 units/acre. Moore-Jefferson is over 10 units/acre. For 2 and 3-family home neighborhoods, anything over 12 units/acre is considered smart growth. The Jackson Witherspon neighborhood is at around 14 units/acre. SFB --- I've looked through all three white papers that have been posted during this discussion on density. I've found alot of references to high density but not actual numbers. Can you point me to anything quantifiable in these papers? Also I've seen alot of low-rise buildings in the photos in the white papers. BTW: I'm not really sure who wrote these papers; National Association of Realtors was on the left hand corner of the title page of one.
Joe Bardzilowski January 31, 2013 at 03:19 PM
All of these cowards who post comments about piling as many renters as possible onto the hospital should be completely ignored by everyone. Obviously you live in a neighborhood that would not be impacted by this density and you probably have something to gain from either the hospital or AVB. If you really are just a bleeding heart who just can't wait to bake 280 cakes to welcome our new neighbors, please identify yourself so we can send all the thank you notes to the correct mansion.
SFB January 31, 2013 at 05:15 PM
<i>Every parent from that area will drive every student to JW Middle School and Princeton High School until the day that the student receives his/her own car, and drives herself. </i> Do you really believe this? JW is 6 blocks away. The high school is 3 blocks away. Isn't it far more likely that a mid-density development in this location would increase walking and cycling?
Robin Reed January 31, 2013 at 07:41 PM
<i>JW is 6 blocks away. The high school is 3 blocks away. Isn't it far more likely that a mid-density development in this location would increase walking and cycling?</i> Short answer: no. Real life evidence: I have seen people who live right in the John/Witherspoon neighborhood DRIVE to the restaurant on my street (Leigh), a distance of 3 or 4 short blocks. Neighbors from my street often DRIVE, not walk, to the municipal complex on Witherspoon, an even shorter distance. In addition, on my block of Leigh there are seven who work at the University and only 2 or 3 walk w/any regularity. Three commute to NY and of those only one walks to the Dinky. Everyone has their reasons (e.g., errands or picking up kids after work, appointments or other time constraints etc.) The point is, this is what really happens. This is a suburban environment w/a suburban mentality, i.e., car-oriented. Increasing population density WILL increase density in auto traffic.
SFB February 01, 2013 at 02:33 PM
Joe, first of all, we're neighbors, so let's try to disagree cordially. Second, there is a huge market demand for higher density housing within walkable range of Princeton downtown. If we are going to stand in the way of the market using zoning restrictions, it ought to be for a very good reason. Remember that when Palmer Square was built, with buildings of up to 5 levels, that was also extremely controversial. It changed the character of a neighborhood from what had previously been single family homes. But Palmer Square is now widely regarded as the nicest part of the town. It is the denser, downtown parts of Princeton like Palmer Square that add vibrancy to the town. Buildings of the equivalent height of Palmer Square would complement the neighborhood and support affordability and retail in Princeton. Low-density housing may seem like a safer choice for the immediate neighborhood, but the net effect is to engender home construction in the surrounding countryside and car commuting, with the resulting pollution, environmental degradation and road safety issues.
Mary Clurman February 01, 2013 at 04:07 PM
I appreciate the comments that call for moderation in the adding of higher densities -- we are in transition, and the site should respect that. Another question has surfaced: what kind of retail will thrive in this location. A friend who has owned a store says that it is not a likely location for a thriving retail operation...What do we know about this? I'd think that a small specialty grocery store (a branch of Whole Earth?) would be great (not a standard convenience store), a restaurant (not a chain), -- what else comes to mind? There are 2 dry cleaners on 206 a few blocks away, and a small grocer /convenience store there. It should not be all expensive establishments -- Nick Hilton is close enough. There may be a need to temporarily subsidize something like a craft shop??? And it would be wonderful to add a Tuesday farmers' market outdoors, maybe a community room could be included in the apartment planning, for indoor inclement weather accommodations -- maybe a branch of the Library operation??? If these seem pie-in-the-sky, it's worth checking them out to see what is, in fact, possible.
SFB February 01, 2013 at 08:55 PM
14 units/acre density means that 280 households require 20 acres of land to build. 50 units/acre density means that 280 households can be build on 5.6 acres. The difference is 14.4 acres, equivalent to two Grover Parks. This is simple math. 14 units/acre means less land for parks and green space, not more.
Alexi Assmus February 02, 2013 at 01:47 PM
Well ... we had a big developer here awhile back, he had 50 units/acre, and he took all sorts of liberties with our Master Plan and Borough Code, and he proposed not much of a park at all ...
Joe Bardzilowski February 02, 2013 at 06:11 PM
You claim to be a neighbor but yet you refuse to identify yourself. I'm sure if your identity was exposed then we would understand your motivation for trying to destroy our neighborhood. Are you with the hospital or AvalonBay? It has to be one or the other or you would let us all know who you are. Your remarks should be ignored in their entirerty.
Ken Gumpert February 02, 2013 at 08:16 PM
We have a choice. We can have higher density (dwelling units per acre), higher than permitted anywhere else in the Borough Code, higher than anywhere else in Princeton. Or we can have lower density, similar to the surrounding area. Do we want more traffic congestion? Higher density = More units More units = More cars More cars = Higher traffic intensity or More traffic congestion Do we want more air pollution? Do we want more respiratory problems, such as asthma? These three causal relationships have been proven in countless studies. Higher density causes increased traffic congestion. Increased traffic congestion causes increased air pollution. Increased air pollution causes respiratory problems. Given these proven causal relationships, can we conclude higher density may indirectly cause respiratory problems? Then how can we allow higher density? Lower density appears to be the healthy, responsible choice.
David Keddie February 03, 2013 at 04:13 AM
I am a neighbor who lived for years on Vandeventer and now lives in Grigg's Farm and I share SFB's views on the issue. There are many in the community who actively prefer density, including five-story apartment buildings on the hospital site. You can see from the rent that would be paid in the proposed AvalonBay Princeton that it would be greater than that for a townhouse on the outskirts of town. Many are willing to pay a massive premium for the privilege of being able to walk some or all of the time they go out their front door.
David Keddie February 03, 2013 at 04:18 AM
We have a choice to either allow increased population density or increased traffic density and sprawl. I prefer greater population density to the level needed to meet demand. Why should we fear density? The lack of housing in town increases traffic, destroys open space, increases water runoff, and undermines our tax base. Those who live close in to town do so precisely to enjoy the benefits of having a choice to walk instead of drive at least some of the time, to have easy access to a vibrant and walkable town. Why should we limit access to that choice? Why should we make housing so unaffordable in the most sustainable place to live in the region? Even if the density rises in the historic core of Princeton the entire rest of the town and region will provide opportunity for an auto-oriented lifestyle. Surely we can allow for more lifestyle choice, and welcome rather than prevent increased density in town.
David Keddie February 03, 2013 at 04:24 AM
It's true that many drive ridiculously short distances merely because they can. The difference I see however is that they have a choice to walk if driving or parking is inconvenient. Everywhere else in the region everyone drives for everything with no alternative no matter how congested the roads are. What I see in town is that many choose to walk at the times of day when driving and parking are inconvenient. For the many thousands of commuters into Princeton there isn't that option, creating major traffic issues, including in the Witherspoon and Moore/Jefferson neighborhoods. Also, for those whose cars are in a parking deck rather than in a driveway outside their front door that choice to walk becomes much more convenient. Any children in new apartments on Witherspoon likewise would not need to be bused given that the elementary school is across the street. Even if parents drive a few blocks to the high school it's better than them driving a few miles from the outskirts of town. The traffic is already in the neighborhood, density offers a way to reduce it while increasing neighborhood retail and improving the tax base, not to mention helping the environment.
Alexi Assmus February 03, 2013 at 01:35 PM
Possible busing of elementary schoolchildren, due to the size of the proposed redevelopment of the hospital site, was mentioned at a Princeton Environmental Commission Meeting (Oct 2 2012) by Commissioner Victoria Hamilton. CP may not be able to hold the number of elementary school kids from a 280-unit development?
Alexi Assmus February 03, 2013 at 01:36 PM
Ken -- cite the studies. It would be helpful for all of us. Are these the studies showing that smart growth can bring increased traffic and congestion?
Alexi Assmus February 03, 2013 at 01:46 PM
SFB --- I've been thinking about your math. If the size of the units is the same and the number of levels is the same, you will have as much green space left to the earth whether you build 280 units at 14 units/acre or at 50 units/acre. True, with the higher density, we don't build on a large parcel of green space, like Grover Park, but in the lower density case we have the same amount of green space left after construction and can make it public open space -- integrated throughout the development and usable by the public. This is what the university has done at Stanworth/Merwick. Small units grouped together and lots of publicly accessible and usable open space. I'll post an image of their site plan above.
David Keddie February 03, 2013 at 02:32 PM
Ken, I believe density has the opposite effect from what you expect. At a spot like the old hospital site walking is more convenient than driving for many or all trips. Car use decreases significantly as population density increases as you can see from this post by the Natural Resources Defense Council: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/considering_the_role_of_densit.html I myself lived for years on Vandeventer without owning a car, something impossible almost everywhere else in the region. The old hospital site is actually closer on foot to where I work on campus than the parking garage I'm allowed to park in. I drive every day down Witherspoon, Moore, or Jefferson because I can't find affordable housing in walking distance. The cars are already in Princeton; allowing more people to live in walking distance can only ease traffic congestion. Did the new apartments at the library and on Spring Street increase congestion? My home town of State College, PA has an order of magnitude more people living in the core of town and traffic there is much easier than Princeton because everyone who wishes to walk can choose to do so.
SFB February 03, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Ken, Have you ever wondered why the EPA and the Sierra Club favor denser neighborhoods? 280 units in central Princeton = 280 households who can walk to work / shops 78 units in central Princeton + 202 units in new-build homes in the countryside = 78 households who can walk to work / shops + 202 households who must drive everywhere. Therefore by favoring low-density, you create 202 car-dependent households, with all the ensuing traffic, pollution and respiratory problems, while requiring more green space to be paved, and contributing to social exclusion in central Princeton.
Alexi Assmus February 03, 2013 at 07:53 PM
The question is what is an appropriate number of units for the hospital site, set in the midst of small-lot single-family/duplex town neighborhoods.. Many different looks at the question say that 280 units or 50 units/acre is way too much. *** If you were to set the density at that of the surrounding neighborhood it would be 10 units/acre or 56 units.. ***Architect Areta Pawlynsky mentioned at last Thursday's Task Force meeting the view of smart-growth advocate Urban Land Institute: more than 2x the density of the surrounding neighborhoods is too much --- 2x the neighborhood density in this case would be 20 units/acre or 102 units.. ** Massachusetts legislation sets anything above 8 units/acre as smart-growth density for single-family neighborhoods. In the case of the hospital site at 45 units would be considered smart growth. ***If we want to make the hospital a site for apartments, then 20 units/acre or 102 units is considered smart growth by Mass law. *** Ken's suggestion is that it be set it at 14 units/acre or 78 units (that of the university's planned Merwick development). *** Really, you can't pick the number out of a hat. A good architect needs to do a site and massing plan specific to the site --- and this will help determine a density.
David Keddie February 03, 2013 at 09:44 PM
The appropriate context for determining the right density at the hospital site is the fact that Princeton is overrun by cars, many of whose occupants would gladly live within walking distance of their work, school, and stores. A 202 unit development near the shopping center would be better than one out in the middle of nowhere, but not nearly as good as one on Witherspoon where residents could walk for most or all of their needs, including work. What is wrong with population density? Surely the density found already on Witherspoon and Nassau Streets is what attracted many to live so close to town. Are the residents of single family homes better off with more than 28,000 cars driving through their neighborhoods into town every day as is currently the case? SFB, myself, and others who favor greater density in town are in no way connected to the developer. We are adding a differing vision for a Princeton with a walkable core densely populated enough to handle demand for the most sustainable, and in my view enjoyable, lifestyle in the region. The current and future Stanworths are planned with tremendous amounts of unused open space and lack the density or zoning for mixed use commercial. That is a suburban style of development in the core of a historic town. We would be much better served with the model of Palmer Square and the Library Plaza; sufficient density to provide vibrant open space. David Keddie
David Keddie February 03, 2013 at 09:50 PM
For those reading these comments who are interested in advocating for a more sustainable Princeton, a more affordable Princeton, a less congested Princeton, a Princeton that preserves open space and encourages population density in the core of town, join Walkable Princeton: https://www.facebook.com/WalkablePrinceton We intend to organize and articulate a vision that welcomes increased density of people to the core of town rather than merely cars clogging our roads. At a recent task force meeting on rezoning the hospital site, increased density had strong support from those residents who commented. There are many who share these views. We need to be a voice in the discussion!
Alexi Assmus February 03, 2013 at 11:49 PM
David, Merwick Standworth are being developed at 14 and 12 units/acre. This is town-like density, not surburban, and it is considered smart growth density under Massachusetts law. Suburban densities are in the 1 unit/acre range and less. Take at look at SFB's handy density pdf.
Alexi Assmus February 04, 2013 at 02:58 AM
Mary --- just wondering what you meant by "we are in transition, and the site should respect that." I believe the redevelopment of the site should respect the neighborhood around it --- this is the purpose of zoning.
David Keddie February 04, 2013 at 04:15 AM
It's true that Merwick and Stanworth are being developed at more than the suburban average. Though the average suburb is I believe 5 units/acre which is a great deal more than the 1 unit/acre allowed by the zoning in much of the former Princeton Township. When I call them suburban I mean they lack a proper street grid, include cul-de-sacs, have a lot of "open space" that is little more than lawn that is little used by residents. I have many friends who live in Stanworth and bike to campus. They would be better served by a living in an apartment building in a more densely developed street grid that supports retail on the ground floor, such as the proposed AvalonBay. There's good open space, such as Palmer Square and Library Plaza, and poorly used open space, such as lawns which no one uses except to look at from their cars. To my mind the appropriate density in town is the density that gets the most people out of their cars. At the current density housing in town is nonetheless dramatically more expensive than housing on the fringes and I personally know many, including myself, who would live and walk in town if the cost differential wasn't so high. So long as that situation persists I'll be advocating increased density.


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