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.”