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AvalonBay May Head to Court Over Princeton Project

The planning board denied the 280-unit development in December, but AvalonBay has extended its contract to buy the Witherspoon Street property.


AvalonBay Communities may be headed to court over the planning board’s decision to deny its proposed 280-unit residential development on Witherspoon Street in Princeton.

It's one of the options the company may pursue, according to Princeton Healthcare System CEO Barry Rabner.

“I spoke to Ron Ladell of Avalon Bay (today)” Rabner wrote in an email.  “He said that AvalonBay has not made the decision to appeal the Township's decision. It is one of the options they are considering.”

Contacted for clarification, AvalonBay Senior Vice President Ron Ladell said no decision would be made until the planning board’s attorney finishes, and the planning board approves, the resolution that officially denies the project.

AvalonBay is currently under contract with Princeton Healthcare to purchase the former 253 Witherspoon Street site, which has been vacant since the hospital moved to its new building on Route 1 in Plainsboro in May 2012.

Patch sat down for an interview with Rabner on Tuesday morning. He said as of Friday, Jan. 11, AvalonBay had told him they were going to address the planning board's denial through the courts. He later sent an email clarification to explain that no final appeal decision has been made.

The hospital and AvalonBay’ contract specified a closing date of Dec. 31, 2012 for the sale, but AvalonBay has exercised its option to extend the contract, Rabner said.

In December, the planning board rejected AvalonBay’s development proposal by a vote of 7-3, following a slew of meetings in which residents came out in full force to express their concerns.

When Ladell first appeared before Princeton Borough Council in late 2011 and presented plans to raze the multi-story hospital building and build rental apartments on the site, the idea was met with interest and praise.

Today, the relationship between Princeton and AvalonBay is less cordial.

Residents and officials alike balked at the developers plan to build fewer than the zoning’s required 20 percent affordable units on the property, although AvalonBay later agreed to meet those requirements.

Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods, a grassroots organization, formed in opposition to AvalonBay’s proposal. The group objected to the project’s size and design and believes it too massive to fit into the existing neighborhood. They also believe AvalonBay’s commitment to sustainability should extend to LEED building standards and dislike the appearance of what they consider a “gated community.”

Asked if he has any regrets about the hospital’s choice of AvalonBay for the buyer of the Princeton property, Rabner paused for several moments.

“The reason I’m pausing to answer is for me it all comes down to whatever the constraints are based on the contract so I’m trying to think through whether I’d be violating that contract,” he said. “It’s important to me that I don’t do or say anything that would hinder AvalonBay’s ability to secure the approvals they need to go forward with the project.”

For every month that the property remains undeveloped, the hospital incurs costs including taxes, property maintenance, utilities and around the clock, Rabner said.

“And we don’t have the money,” he said. “Had we sold the property, we would have the money and the interest on the money. So that is an expense.”

He declined to specify the exact carrying costs, but said, “it's significant by anyone’s measure.”

Meanwhile, Princeton Council on Monday named several officials and members of the public to a new task force that will be charged with discussing possible changes to the hospital site zoning. No representatives of the hospital were appointed.

Rabner said as long as hospital representatives have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion during the task force’s public meetings, they plan to be part of the process. His believes the task force will refine the zone’s design standards and add specifics not in the current zoning.

“The sale of the hospital site is critically important to us, so we want to make sure that we’re able to sell it,” Rabner said. “If the (zoning) were to change substantially, that would be problematic because that was a key component of funding of the new hospital.  It would be harmful to us if they meaningfully diminished the value of the site to a buyer.”  

Rabner said he hopes that anyone who disagrees with the developer’s proposal can keep their concerns focused on the issues and refrain from personal attacks.

“I’m disappointed when I read that some people think that we’re not a good neighbor, that we’ve done something to hurt the town and I’m certain disappointed when our motives are called into question,” he said. “We are a very ethical, principled organization and it means a lot to us so even if it’s only one person who says these unkind things, it’s disappointing and it hurts. We want to be able to disagree about things that matter in a civilized matter.”

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Dr. Daniel A. Harris January 16, 2013 at 01:49 PM
Corrections and emendtions: 1) Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods asked for specific "green" building practices, not for LEED certification. (Readers should know that LEED-certification cannot be mandated because its stipulations come from a private third-party organization. 2) Mr. Rabner's feelings may be hurt, but he is feeling the proper financial pinch he deserves for having betrayed the Princeton community. He contracted with the single bidder whose site-plan model is ALWAYS a gated community: i.e., Mr. Rabner contracted with AvalonBay in full consciousness that doing so violated both the Princeton Master Plan and Princeton Borough Code. If he had contracted with an appropriate developer, his hospital would have money in hand already. I have no pity for Mr. Rabner's handwringing, which I doubt is genuine. The underlying truth is that he sold out the neighborhood by demanding a unit count of "up to 280" units on a 5.63 acre site = 50 units per acre, outrageously high. He and the hospital also paid $15,000 to Princeton Borough and Princeton Township to help defray costs of work on the enabling ordinances. The hospital has no legitimate claims to influence future decisions by municipal bodies about zoning. It made its pitch once, got the zoning it wanted, sold to the highest bidder instead instead of the best bidder, lost money in the process: screwed up---everyone knows it, including Mr. Rabner, whose job should be on the line.
SFB January 16, 2013 at 06:51 PM
Tasha, Avalon Bay is not always a gated community. Go to Fox Run, an Avalon community in Plainsboro. Anyone can drive right in. 280 units on a 5.6 acre site does not outrage me. In fact, I think it's a good thing. Besides, I believe Mr Rabner has said in the past that Avalon Bay was the ONLY qualified bidder, so it seems unfair to blame him for choosing them! I'm sure I'm going to end up paying for this mess, through increased health insurance premiums and my tax dollars going to pay for costly legal fights.
David Keddie January 16, 2013 at 06:54 PM
If Avalon Bay takes the issue to court and wins, as seems likely, it will be because the Princeton planning board has violated their property rights. The planning board and the public are not the owners of the five acres and the zoning power is strictly circumscribed by the municipal land-use law. After wasting much money on legal fees in useless battles against the university, and after abandoning the Morven historic district once it was clear it would be defeated in court, I would think our leaders would be more careful in forcing property owners to defend their rights in court. There are many homes in Princeton on lots larger than five acres. Are they gated communities? Some of them actually have gates and fences. The center of town is built at a density similar to that proposed by Avalon Bay, is that harmful to Princeton? Time will tell whether Avalon Bay sues and whether they succeed. I can only hope that we aren't left with an abandoned hospital for years to come while these fights play out. Sincerely, David Keddie
owen January 17, 2013 at 01:13 PM
"The group objected to the project's size and design." Hold on a minute. There's now a 10 story abandoned building that's truly ugly (I know because I look right at it from my bedroom window.) And while townfolk as casting doubt on hospital's motives, I wonder if all the resistance from the Jefferson Road crowd isn't fear that a few hundred nice residences will compete with their older, poorly insulated, wastefully sized houses when it comes time for resale. I believe in the notion that "follow the money" is reliable...and it can go both ways.
Alexi Assmus January 22, 2013 at 07:37 PM
Clarification: AvalonBay builds both (1) garden apartments (like Avalon Run) which are open developments and (2) closed developments like that proposed for Avalon Princeton --- two large rectangles joined together with interior open space inside. Fortress-like is an apt description for the second type. I'll post an image of the proposed Avalon Princeton above. Trained architects who specialize in urban design put 20-25 units/acre as a reasonable top density for the former hospital site. Anything above 35-40 units/acre and you lose sight of any sense of building --- and are forced into a mid-rise double loaded corridor of apartments like the proposed Avalon Princeton. Rather than a low-rise in scale and keeping with the neighborhood. Rehabbing the hospital towers as apartments is another path with its own benefits. But if the hospital comes down, why not build something great in context with the neighborhood. No need to use the hospital as a comparison --- it would be gone and forgotten.


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