Hospital Site: 280 Units and Fit Into The Neighborhood?

Task force unveils a plan with 280 units in a walkable, open development, with businesses and low building heights facing the street.


The task force charged with recommending zoning changes at the former hospital site on Witherspoon Street has outlined with a plan that could accommodate 280 apartments and also address the concerns of neighbors. 

Hospital Site MRRO Ordinance Task Force member and architect Bill Wolfe on Tuesday outlined a tentative plan would include three, four, five and six story buildings, with the highest building abutting the parking garage. 

"It's tight, but it's doable," Wolfe said, noting that the average size of the units is similar to that of AvalonBay's proposal last year. 

The plan also includes public open space and public pathways throughout the development to avoid the appearance of a "monolithic" or "gated" community.

The buildings along Franklin Street would be three stories tall, but only two stories tall would face Franklin Street.

An ad hoc group created concept plans for a site containing 250, 260, 270 and 280 units. But the focus is on the 280-unit plan because Princeton Council wants to maintain the density in order to procure 56 affordable units (20 percent) on the site.

The plan was created simply to show what could be built on the site, with an eye to then amending the ordinance to achieve a desirable planning board application.

The task force will make zoning recommendations to Princeton Council. Should Council endorse those recommendations, the revised ordinance proposal would go to the planning board to review for adherence to the master plan before Council could vote to adopt the changes.

No final decisions have been made by the task force, but the group has discussed that it may like prospective developers to meet the following requirements:

  • minimum of 12,000 sq. ft. of retail/non-residential space on the ground floor along Witherspoon Street (up to 24,000 sq. ft allowed)
  • minimum of three residential buildings
  • Thirty percent of the site would be public open space 
  • walkways allowed between buildings, but must be above the ground floor
  • minimum distances required between buildings and across open space. 
  • building length could not exceed 150 feet (except along building abutting parking garage)

Now it will up to the task force to write the new zoning requirements in a way that will result in a development that will be amenable to the Princeton community. 

"What matters most is how it looks, how it feels walking down the sidewalk," task force member Gail Ullman said. 

Officials and members of the public also feel strongly that redevelopment should include energy conservation. To achieve that goal, Wolfe suggested that the ordinance could allow 260 units but offer a 20 unit bonus if the developer follows Princeton's energy conservation recommendations. Another resident suggested that if a developer chooses not to pursue the density bonus, Princeton could subsidize the four additional affordable housing units, to keep with the 56 units Council wants. 

The caveat is that AvalonBay, whose plans to redevelop the site were rejected by the planning board in December, could appeal the rejection within 45 days of it being finalized. Should the developer prevail, the company could build under the guidelines of the existing ordinance.

Hospital officials do not object to amending the ordinance, but say their priority is not devaluing the sale price of the property.

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SFB February 06, 2013 at 12:57 PM
Bill Wolfe is laying out something that many of us have believed the entire time: it is perfectly possible to fit 280 units onto the hospital site in a way that complements the neighborhood. A building with appropriate setbacks will give the appearance from the street of being no higher than a 2-level home. This is an innovative, sustainable concept that would enable the demonstrated benefits of a compact walkable development (reduced traffic, protected green space and economic vibrancy) to mesh with the desires of neighbors for a significant chunk of the hospital site to be returned to green space. I do fear that it will still be rejected by a group of neighbors who are dogmatically opposed to 280 units under any circumstances. I applaud the Council for having the vision to consider this plan, which provides the homes that Princeton needs in a sustainable setting that will be to the long-term benefit of businesses and residents in the community.
Kate February 06, 2013 at 05:53 PM
Looks like a 'city.' Please lower the density!
BFS February 06, 2013 at 05:54 PM
The first draft design by the task force is a step in the right direction. Still quite large relative to the neighborhood and some future residents will be walking a long way to get to and from their cars. It's also very doubtful that AVB would build anything even close to this new proposed design. Which may be a good thing. Stay away AvalonBay!
Dr. Daniel A. Harris February 06, 2013 at 05:57 PM
SFB again has incomplete information. Bill Wolfe presented diagrams, not concept plans. Everyone knows that many units MORE than 280 could theoretically be "fitted" onto the site. Is such an excess in density desirable? No. Furthermore, Princeton Council has not yet "[considered] this plan."
BFS February 06, 2013 at 06:20 PM
I think the decision makers for the town have to consider the future property values of the surrounding neighborhoods to be as important as the value to the exiting hospital today. Why should hundreds of hard working families suffer financial losses so that the already wealthy hospital can parachute out of town with one huge parting gift of $35,000,000.? If they can only get $25,000,000 because the town would be better off with a lower unit count I don't think too many sympathy cards will be sent to PHC.
Tugwalla February 07, 2013 at 01:10 AM
Several years ago I lived 2 doors down from the Hospital on Witherspoon...this will destroy a neighborhood that is already over congested with traffic and a high, but unreported crime.
Robin Reed February 07, 2013 at 05:07 PM
Just because you 'can' fit 280 units in this site doesn't mean you 'should' -- this density is still way too high. The traffic on Witherspoon morning and evening now is bad --and it will only become worse, because contrary to the idealistic projections some have made, new residents will drive most places ---that's the reality now, even among my neighbors who work at the university, or commute by train to NY--they drive their cars. Most people have something to do after work: pick up kids, take kids to lessons or sports, grocery store or other errand -- these require a car so even if a resident 'could' walk to their university job, most won't. And many of the university jobs, especially additional ones in the newer buildings, are farther from the town center and would not be seen as walkable by most people. Not everyone will be working in Nassau Hall, after all.
Alexi Assmus February 07, 2013 at 08:13 PM
280 units is the number of units in the current zoning --- no change. The Task Force recommended reducing it to 220 units, but Council instructed them not to reduce the density. . Architects on the Task Force had recommended even lower densities. Heidi Fichtenbaum recommended a max of 127; Areta Pawlynsky cautioned that the Urban Land Institute (promoting smart growth) recommended densities of no more than two times the surrounding neighborhood (or 102 units).
SFB February 08, 2013 at 02:47 AM
Oh come on. If you build fewer houses on Witherspoon, that doesn't make the traffic magically disappear. It just means that the people who might have lived in a walkable neighborhood are now living on former green space around Princeton and driving in, increasing vehicle miles traveled and producing the traffic that we see every day. Of course residents on Witherspoon don't walk for 100% of their trips, but they can and do make many more journeys by foot than people in suburbs. This is about enabling people to choose to live a lifestyle where you only use cars when necessary, as opposed to every single time you want to go pick up some milk or something. High density housing reduces traffic and with 10% population growth predicted in Mercer County, we need to make some strong choices or face gridlock in the future.
Alexi Assmus February 08, 2013 at 12:05 PM
Hey SFB ... would you come take a walk with me and go out to lunch?


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