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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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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