Princeton group loses latest environmental battle against AvalonBay developer

Princeton group loses latest environmental battle against AvalonBay developer

Source:, February 25, 2014
By: Nicole Mulvaney, The Times of Trenton

A Superior Court judge today rejected arguments that AvalonBay, the developer that wants to convert the former Princeton hospital on Witherspoon Street into housing, had not addressed concerns about dust levels, asbestos and medical waste disposal.

Township residents concerned about the environmental impacts of demolishing the former University Medical Center hospital to make way for 68 housing units had gone before Judge Mary Jacobson Feb. 12 to present their case after she dismissed a separate claim by them in December.

“I’m disappointed,” Evan Yassky, of the citizens group Association for Planning at Hospital Site, said today. “I think our group really did a tremendous job of trying to stand up for responsible development, and we’ll continue to fight for the same.”

The group filed a lawsuit against AvalonBay’s plan in Mercer County Superior Court on Sept. 30, the last day for appeals of the town’s approval of the controversial project, which has encountered much opposition from townspeople concerned about the design and scope of the construction.

AvalonBay’s first application was denied by the planning board in December 2012, prompting AvalonBay to appeal the decision to the courts.

In April, the town agreed to suspend the litigation and allow the company to submit a revised plan addressing residents’ and officials’ complaints. The new plan was approved 8-1 by the planning board in July.

The residents’ appealed on environmental grounds, contending the project was moving along too quickly without enough attention paid to environmental concerns.

In December, Jacobson dismissed one of the group’s claims, ruling they were too late in challenging the legality of a 2006 Princeton Borough zoning ordinance for the site, but heard the four additional claims this month, all of which related to environmental issues, Yassky said.

“We’re not trying to stop all development on the site. We would love to see new housing and new uses, but we’re encouraging responsible development,” Yassky said last week. “The current proposal is irresponsible. We’d love to see it happen, but done in the right way.”

AvalonBay’s plan would turn the former hospital site into a complex with two apartment buildings and three buildings of four townhouse units each. The apartment buildings would include 56 affordable housing units, with half allocated for moderate income families, 37 percent for low-income and 13 percent for very low income families.

Some residents questioned whether Princeton should hire its own independent specialist to determine whether the site’s soil is contaminated. After some discussion, council last week unanimously passed a resolution to hire a specialist to make that determination: Ira Whitman, an independent consultant.

“We want to make sure we get a full analysis from him,” Mayor Liz Lempert said.
Tensions surrounding AvalonBay’s housing plan sparked fresh debate in recent weeks as evidence of an incinerator once located at the hospital was brought to light by residents.

Jon Vogel, vice president of development for AvalonBay, said during a council meeting last month that the developer worked with former officials of the hospital to determine what the incinerator was used for. It had not been in operation for more than 20 years.

Hospital officials said it was used to burn medical records only, Vogel said. The incinerator has since been removed from the site, he said.

But records show a “pathological” incinerator existed across the hall from a lab titled “pathology,” indicating it was used for “a lot more than burning paper,” Yassky said.

Municipal engineer Bob Kiser said during a council meeting this week that the incinerator was “used for medical waste.”

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