Tug of War: Redeveloping Princeton’s Medical Center

A new redevelopment site in Princeton, N.J. has ignited a battle between community activists and the developer. But is affordable housing being forgotten?

Plans for the former site of the University Medical Center of Princeton have pitted locals versus the developer. Credit: Flickr user slgckgc

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A battle is underway in Princeton, N.J. over the redevelopment of the former campus of the University Medical Center of Princeton, made famous as the fictionalized setting for the medical mystery TV show House.

The century-old former hospital site, spanning about nine acres in the more traditionally dense neighborhoods off Witherspoon Street in Princeton, has recently become vacant as the medical center moved to a new complex 10 minutes away across US Route 1.

Over the past few months, residents have spoken out against site developer Avalon Bay Communities for not strictly following a legally non-binding zoning code, which had been drafted through years of open community planning specifically for the site. To many borough residents, the project represents an intrusive presence that will not only take away from the area’s community feel, but also a missed opportunity to create a more livable Princeton.

For resident Robin Reed, the project invokes a feeling of “dismay, if not downright dread.” In a letter to the editor on PlanetPrinceton.com, Reed accuses Avalon Bay of “lack of sensitivity to community.” For those like Reed, the project’s lack of LEED credentials and public space are unacceptable. Concerns over the scaling of the buildings prompted the developer to go back to the architect, presenting a new vision at a borough meeting. Many residents, however, remained dissatisfied.

For some, the debate over design has overshadowed another factor: Affordable housing. In an article on PlanetPrinceton.com, Sandra Persichetti expressed concern that the increasing amount of time taken to start the project will end up with only a few affordable units getting built way too late.

Sheila Berkelhammer, a resident interviewed in the same article, said that the longer the site remained vacant, the greater chance that it will “fester and bring down property values.”

Their frustration is highlighted by the fact that Avalon Bay originally had requested to increase the number of units it could build, which would also increase the number of affordable units. But, not wanting greater density, the community vetoed this idea.

Adam Gordon, an attorney with Fair Share Housing Center, a NJ based housing rights public interest group, sees, “a serious shortage of housing choices for working and middle-class people [in Princeton].” For Gordon, “it’s rare that Princeton has an opportunity to address that shortage.” Continuing, Gordon agrees in the importance of community supported designs, though “that process should not become an obstacle to the development getting built and needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.” Gordon hopes that this battle will end this summer so that the 280 apartments, including the 56 lower income units, will be finished by the end of the year.

Credit: “Flickr user slgckgc”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/slgc/6059971508/

According to Sheldon Sturges of local planning group Princeton Future, affordable housing is not something to be overlooked. But, he said, it’s not a question of one or the other. While Sturges agreed as well that Avalon Bay is not the right fit, he understands the need for affordable housing in an increasingly expensive area.

Sturges, however, said he thinks that there’s room for both affordable and sustainable housing. Princeton Future was the group, after all, that had drafted the original zoning hoping for a vibrant new addition to the neighborhood.

Through all this fighting, little attention has been paid to the actual medical center, which technically still owns the land. Another letter to the editor called for the hospital to cancel the contract with Avalon Bay and choose a different developer.

This all raises the question of whether the need for affordable housing overshadows concerns of local groups, tying into the much deeper debate about NIMBYism. That local communities must have a say in what happens to their area is a given, but how much say? What if their needs conflict with the needs of a large number of others who might not live in the area, but depend on its services?

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Tags: affordable housingeconomic developmentinclusionary zoning

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