AvalonBay hosted a ribbon-cutting Monday, Dec. 5, at its newest residential community in Princeton.
By Joshua Burd
AvalonBay Communities Inc. has opened the doors to its new community in Princeton, marking the completion of one of New Jersey’s more fiercely contested redevelopment projects in recent years.
The multifamily builder hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday at the new complex on Witherspoon Street, which occupies the site of the former Princeton Hospital just minutes from the municipality’s historic downtown. In an event that drew some nearly 150 business leaders, public officials and others, AvalonBay Senior Vice President Ron Ladell praised the company’s team for persevering with a project that faced stiff opposition for more than four years.
The company signed a contract for the site in 2011 and sought approvals in 2012 without the need for variances or waivers, he said. But the application was denied by the town’s planning board, setting off a rancorous legal battle that ultimately allowed a modified version of the project to be built.
“It didn’t put us off,” Ladell, the Arlington, Virginia-based builder’s top executive in New Jersey told the crowd. “We kept pursuing this opportunity to the point where we now have just about 280 units built.”
More than 100 units of those units have been leased and more than 50 people already live in the community, he said, noting that “today is to celebrate … with some people that were integral and instrumental in getting that done.”
Charles Richman, the commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, was among several public officials who celebrated the grand opening, along with state Sen. Kip Bateman and assemblymen Jack Ciattarelli and Andrew Zwicker. During brief remarks, Richman said Avalon Princeton is “is emblematic of what we like to see in redevelopment” — the redevelopment of a shuttered hospital with a unit mix that includes 20 percent affordable housing.
“That’s what you want to see happen across New Jersey,” Richman said. “It’s done in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the municipality, as we hear in all of these horror stories of what may happen when you put affordable units in community.”
Ladell noted that AvalonBay now has about 20 communities with some 6,400 units in its New Jersey footprint. And it’s not slowing down. The builder plans to deliver apartments in Maplewood starting around March, while a community in Boonton has started construction and three others are slated to break ground in the next 90 days.
After the program, Ladell reflected on the difficulty of the project.
“The difficulty was pretty high,” Ladell said. “Clearly, Princeton is a high-profile town with a lot of passionate people who have an opinion about various things. It was always a wonderful opportunity because of the nature of the town, but also because it was zoned for multifamily, which is unusual in the state of New Jersey.”
He said one major takeaway from the experience is the ability of AvalonBay, as a large well-capitalized public company, to “be able to stay with these projects through the ups and downs.”
“When we were initially denied, we overcame that. When we found some contamination that we didn’t have any notice about in advance, we overcame that,” Ladell said. “And the ability to persevere in light of those financial challenges is what we’re able to do in difficult sites like this to ultimately end up where we are.”