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Letter: We Don't Need FortressAvalon

Highlights of AvalonBay hearings at the Planning Board on December 13.

To the Editor:

Some highlights of AvalonBay hearings at the Planning Board on December 13 (final hearing tonight, 7:30):

First, Peter Steck, urban planner for Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods, argued that AvalonBay requires multiple variances which AvalonBay hasn’t sought---permissions to deviate from zoning. “This application,” he stated, “is really not ready to be heard.” Some variances, he said, can only be requested from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (beyond Planning Board jurisdiction).

He also argued that AvalonBay’s open space for “both public and private use” (the MRRO zone definition) falls short of the 20% minimum required—17.5% at best, since AvalonBay counts the public municipal sidewalk as its own open space (!), and more likely 14.1%, since open space between downstairs apartments and Witherspoon Street and Franklin Avenue is private (with private walkways to raised private patios). With this shortfall on public open space, the application violates Borough Code. Design Standards have special applicability because AvalonBay, choosing not to reuse the hospital, redesigned from scratch, with all options available (not just its figure-8 stumblingblock without publicly usable open space).

Robert Simon, PCSN’s land-use attorney, questioned Jeremy Lang’s Planner’s Report. He said it was “not independent work,” since Mr. Lang had quoted extensively—without attribution—the report submitted by architect Jonathan Metz. “The words are his,” Mr. Lang admitted, “but “I agree.” Messy: draw your own conclusions.

Public speakers gave new environmental information. Vincent Giordano, an environmental attorney with extensive experience in “due diligence” for major corporations, noted carcinogens in onsite groundwater, 2-4 times above state quality standards; soils have not yet been properly tested. Heidi Fichtenbaum, noting minimal costs associated with LEED-certification, said AvalonBay’s building was already “obsolete.” Holly Nelson unfurled a dramatic streetscape showing   FortressAvalon as a wedge in the surrounding neighborhood.

Anne Studholme, AvalonBay’s attorney, risked her reputation, whispering to Mr. Lang while Mr. Simon questioned him—and should have been called out of order.

Come speak. Princeton doesn’t need FortressAvalon.

Linda Oppenheim

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David Keddie December 18, 2012 at 03:11 PM
To describe the development as a 'fortress' is a matter of preference. Certainly compared to the existing hospital structure this proposal would be far less imposing. To my own eye it looks like an attractive and appropriate building for the walkable core of a vibrant town. What would be preferable and at the same time economically viable considering the costs of demolition or reuse? Many buildings in the walkable core on Witherspoon and Nassau cover the lot completely and this density and walkability is what makes the town charming and vibrant. The old hospital site is easy walking distance to multiple parks and playing fields, public squares and even mountain lakes preserve. What Princeton is short on is housing. Even if you dislike the design or even the idea of development other than single-family homes, surely the $3,000,000-$4,000,000 in extra tax revenue is a sufficient inducement.
Alexi Assmus December 18, 2012 at 03:55 PM
Don't forget that the tax revenue is just the plus side of the equation. The costs are schools, police, fire, municipal services, etc... Research shows that in general large-scale developments INCREASE residents property taxes: Check out this link for the evidence from Rockaway Township, NJ: http://www.greatswamp.org/publications/hamiltonPuleo.htm
David Keddie December 18, 2012 at 10:21 PM
The example you give from Rockaway Township is of a greenfield development of single-family homes around a golf course. It's true that just single families homes typically add many students to the schools and don't provide enough added tax revenue to offset those added expenses. Low-density development also adds relatively greater costs for municipal services because of it's spread out nature. In the case of this development by Avalon Bay however we see the site is already developed with a larger structure than its proposed replacement so the cost to municipal services is already present. Also, the development is apartments which will disproportionately draw single and childless households and should add more in revenue than it adds in school costs. The more apartments are built in the walkable core of the downtown, the more Princeton dilutes the cost per capita of it's existing road maintenance, fire coverage, and other services. We should actively aim to add more apartments in the core of town to attract single and childless households to the walkable neighborhoods many prefer to live in, both to dilute our dependence on revenue-negative single-family homes and to reduce the number of cars commuting to jobs in the town. The EPA has an analysis of the tax benefits of this sort of smart growth as shown by Arlington county, Virgina: http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/pdf/phoenix-sgia-case-studies.pdf
PrincetonIQ December 19, 2012 at 04:16 AM
Mr. Keddie provides reasoned, reasonable commentary. It is appreciated with all of the rabid, anti-community columns and letters that seem to be generated by some in the community. It is interesting to me that opponents of this development offer no alternatives, just the usual "not in my backyard" complaints and mentality. These people were all opposed to the Arts Council Building, the Library, the Spring Street Parking Lot and a host of other improvements that make Princeton a model for the nation in terms of downtown revitalization. We should be JUMPING FOR JOY that people are building apartments in Princeton, creating a larger community of people to enjoy the downtown, walk to many incredible stores and services and helping us make sure Princeton doesn't die in the center. Thank you!
PrincetonIQ December 19, 2012 at 04:20 AM
Far from a balanced reporting, readers should take note that this is a highly editorialized, selective recounting of the hearing. It's carefully worded to make it seem that the complainers are all 100% right and proponents are 100% wrong. That's fine, but the preamble certainly seems to sound as if the writings will be accurate and balanced. They are not: They're just one person's view.
Greta Cuyler (Editor) December 19, 2012 at 04:25 AM
@PrincetonIQ: that's correct, this is a letter to the editor and thus is one person's opinion, not a news article.
Alexi Assmus December 19, 2012 at 02:06 PM
On AvalonBay and real estate taxes: *** Avalon states in their annual 10-K that "we aggressively pursue tax appeals" (p. 4 in the 2011 10-K,: http://www.snl.com/Cache/12779217.pdf?O=3&IID=103145&OSID=9&FID=12779217 ) ** Property Tax Assistance Corporation states in its corporate brochure that "Since 1992 we have reduced their [Avalon's] tax liability by nearly 30%," I will post snapshots of these pages in the AvalonBay 10K and the PTA corporate brochure to this discussion.
Alexi Assmus December 19, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Also of interest: AvalonBay Communities, the No. 2 Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) in the country and an S&P 500 corporation with record profits, will purchase Lehman Bros apartment holdings, in a deal that splits the 57,948 apartment units, as of Sept. 30 between AvalonBay and its No 1 competitor, Equity Residential. See NY Times article on the deal: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/11/26/lehman-estate-to-sell-archstone-for-6-5-billion/
PrincetonIQ December 19, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Thanks to Mr. Assmus for posting the updates on Avalon. Points: The entire neighborhood around the hospital site has been pursing tax appeals, so what's good for the goose should be good for the gander, as the saying goes. In terms of AvalonBay's success, to me that means we have a financially sound, experienced and successful builder who will be committed long term to the success of the project. Sounds perfect to me!
Alexi Assmus December 19, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Do the neighbors have Property Tax Assistance Corporation working for them?
David Keddie December 19, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Dear Ms. Assmus, You seem concerned that Avalon Bay won't be a good neighbor. My concern is with the terrible lack and terrible quality of rental apartments in walking distance of the university. My wife and I lived in any number of poor quality yet very expensive apartments in town. As a chaplain at the university I've known grad students and post-docs, often internationals who don't drive, who've faced racist landlords, leaking roofs, burst pipes, vermin, live wires, furnaces that repeatedly fail in winter, not to mention lack of amenities on site such as laundry. The first place we lived on Vandeventer had two burst pipes, one leaking roof, a failed furnace, no cabinets in the kitchen, mice, and draughty windows. Despite these deficiencies it cost as much as Avalon Bay will ask for nice new apartments. I've known a number of folks who've lived in the Avalon Bay communities in the vicinity of Princeton, driven out of town by it's unaffordable rental market and forced to commute to campus. Their experience with Avalon Bay is that is has been professional, so much so that friends chose to move to another Avalon Bay community when they relocated. That sounds much more attractive to me than the large number of individual landlords who do minimum maintenance on their Princeton rental apartments knowing that even with turnover every year there will always be another international grad student forced to rent in walking distance.
PrincetonIQ December 19, 2012 at 06:10 PM
Wonderfully stated. The opponents to this project cloak their comments in "we're just looking out for the community," but in reality they're thinking of themselves and not the community at all. Your viewpoint and perspective is fresh and refreshing.
PrincetonIQ December 19, 2012 at 06:12 PM
Actually, the neighbors formed a group that is trying to bully politicians into trying to convert property tax assessments into a government assistance program. Wish is horrific and a terrible misuse of time and energy, and misleading to the unfortunate neighbors who are paying lawyers to tell them what they want to hear, not the truth.
Alexi Assmus December 20, 2012 at 06:43 PM
I've had a different experience with rental apartments in Princeton. I lived in a terrific rental on University Place owned by the university when I taught there. We have some nice rentals in our neighborhood (the Tree Streets) and I see from the Town Topics that apartment are often priced less than the luxury apartments Avalon proposes. I know that the university has grown quickly recently, particularly in the sciences, and there must be many more grad students and post docs. The university is building over 300 residential units at Merwick/Stanworth, although I believe those are for faculty and staff. Those site plans are beautiful by the way --- many individual buildings, open space throughout with bikeways and walkways, green construction. I see the need for more rental apartments for grad students and postdocs. On the other hand 300 units (about the number zoned for at the former hospital site, as well as approximately what the university is building at Merwick/Stanwork) --- is over 10% of the current number of residential properties in the Borough ( ~ 2000 properties). Two large redevelopments and the number of residential units in the center of town increases by over 20%. Some in these center-of-town neighborhoods don't necessarily welcome that.


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