Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) has reached an agreement with AvalonBay Communities Inc. for the sale of the University Medical Center at Princeton building at 253 Witherspoon Street, plus nine houses PHCS owns on Harris Road.

AvalonBay, a real estate development firm based in Virginia that owns nearly 200 residential properties, announced that it will buy the hospital site for an undisclosed amount and likely raze it. PHCS, which is building a massive new hospital on Plainsboro Road, has been looking for months to find a buyer for its hospital site on Witherspoon after it moves to Plainsboro next year.

Princeton Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes, who also is an architect and principal at Princeton Design Guild in Belle Mead, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about a potential new direction for the hospital site.

When it was announced in 2005 that UMCP would leave Witherspoon Street for Plainsboro, architect Bob Hillier was hired to do a feasibility study for the curent hospital property. Hiller proposed renovating and reusing the existing structure as over-55 living space with a mix of retail and commercial space.

The site is zoned for up to 280 residential units and approximately 79,000 square feet of retail and commercial uses.

Last December PHCS hired BlueGate Partners, a New York-based real estate advisory firm, to guide it on the sale of the 10-acre Witherspoon campus. For a long time it seemed as if PHCS would seek a buyer that would convert the site to residential or mixed retail and commercial space. Mark DeLillo, managing partner of BlueGate, said at the time that the opportunity to convert the hospital and its ancillary buildings, including a three-story, 741-space parking garage, into living space was too good to pass up.

But AvalonBay announced that it likely will raze the structure. The company operates high-end apartment buildings and could possible build a new residential project there.

Wilkes said that he is in favor of leveling the 10-story structure and starting afresh. “I was never too excited about the Hillier proposal,” he said.

For one thing, Wilkes said, renovating a concrete-and-steel hospital with windowless bottom floors would be a huge challenge. Also, he said, that since the hospital’s floor plates all are identical above the first couple floors, there would be almost no variety in how any apartment units would be built.

Razing opens the door for what Wilkes said Princeton wants and needs – mix of residents, young and old, attached and single. While he admits that tearing the building down will rob it of its embedded energy (the term used to describe a building’s existing energy footprint in terms of labor and materials used to erect it), he is confident that the materials will be recycled.

One other possibility is that AvalonBay might be able to break up the “super block” on which the hospital sits. Perhaps, he said, a new sidestreet could be put in, allowing for even more residential growth in that end of town.

All of this is speculative, of course. The deal between PHCS and AvalonBay has yet to finalize, and even if it had, Wilkes said that any plans would likely not come before the Borough Council or Planning Board for at least a year.

There also is the market with which to contend. “Who knows what the market will be like in five years,” Wilkes said. It’s one thing to buy a building, it’s another to operate one. He is encouraged, however, by AvalonBay, which he says is savvy and solid enough to know what to prepare for.

“I’m excited that they’ve found a qualified buyer,” he said. “AvalonBay] is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, so they’re not just out winging it every day.”

Whatever comes of the deal, Wilkes said it will have to be a collaborative effort between the borough and township and the developer. “I don’t know if I’ll be around when this comes up, but I hope the elected officials then will work with them,” he said. “It’s very important to the borough and the township that this works out.”

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