It’s a case of fantasy predicting reality. The highly-rated Fox television show “House,” executive produced by WW-P alumnus Bryan Singer, follows the story of doctors working in the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. Now, it seems, there could be a real-life Princeton-Plainsboro hospital.##M:[more]##

The University Medical Center of Princeton (UMCP) announced on November 28 that it intends to purchase the FMC property on Route 1 north in Plainsboro for a new 800,"000 square-foot hospital. The 155-acre tract is bounded by the Millstone River, Route 1, Scudders Mill Road, and the connector road between Scudders Mill and Plainsboro roads.

“The Plainsboro Road site is in the center of our traditional service area and the majority of our patients,” said CEO Barry Rabner in a press release. “It is also an area with the fastest growing population in this region. This site offers us close proximity to hotels and conference centers, as well as the calm beauty of open space and a river.”

Hospital officials listed proximity to the current Witherspoon Street location (three miles), ease of access, buildability, and strategic and market considerations, as the primary reasons for their choice.

But Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu points out that the hospital relocation to the site is not guaranteed.

The FMC property is not currently zoned for a hospital and would require both a rezoning ordinance approved by the township committee, and approval of a site plan by the planning board.

“A lot of the newspapers are reporting this like it’s a done deal, and it’s not. This is just the beginning of the process and there are a number of issues that need to be addressed,” says Cantu. “I’m optimistic they’ll be worked out. From everything we’ve seen so far, this is an institution that wants to work with town. But these things are not easy, and we have a long way to go.”

Issues include the traffic impact of building a hospital on the site, which currently has no access to Route 1 south, and how the plan fits into the township’s future.

“We have to see how it integrates into the overall planning for the community,” says the mayor. “We have had a vision for the town and have stuck by that through the years. We have to see how the hospital integrates into our plan.”

Another factor is the affordable housing impact on the township. Under new state regulations, any developments constructed in town — including non-profits like hospitals and schools — add to the township’s obligation to provide affordable housing.

There are also financial considerations. Since the hospital is a non-profit, it would not be required to pay property taxes. “We will need to look at trade offs as far as the tax base is concerned,” says Cantu. One possible solution would be for the township to pursue a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), under which the township negotiates an annual payment with the hospital to make up for lost ratable revenues.

“We look forward to meeting with Plainsboro community members and Mayor Cantu and other area officials as we go through the public process necessary for planning and zoning purposes,” says Jack Chamberlin, PHCH chairman of the Board of Trustees. We recognize the importance of making sure University Medical Center at Princeton is a good fit for Plainsboro.

Chamberlin said the goal is to break ground in 2007 and to be open for business in 2010.

Saying it has outgrown its downtown Princeton location, UMCP wants to build an 800,"000 square-foot medical facility to house both a new 296-bed hospital and medical offices. It may want to expand to 1.2 million square feet, but it is not clear whether the site, so close to the river, could get approvals for that expansion.

After approvals are obtained, construction would probably take three years. Rabner estimates the cost to be $350 million, including land, construction, medical equipment and technology, and all fees.

The decision came as a surprise to most, since FMC was not among the properties that hospital officials were considering. The chief candidates were said to be the Carnegie Center North site on Route 1 south in West Windsor, and the old Princeton Nurseries property near Forrestal Village in Plainsboro.

Cantu says FMC site was not a contender for long. “They had always been open about three sites that were under consideration. It wasn’t until recently they began to discuss the FMC site, and a final decision wasn’t made until last night (Monday, November 28). Until then we had no definitive idea that this was the site of choice.”

In fact, in 2003 FMC officials categorically denied that the property was a candidate, despite numerous media reports to the contrary.

Said Michael Cyran, manager of facilities in Plainsboro and Philadelphia: “We are not going to sell and never have considered selling the property to the Medical Center at Princeton. It’s a very valuable site for us and we plan to continue doing research there.”

FMC spokesperson Judy Smeltzer also said then that the company had no plans to sell. “Our chief financial officer just told me that he has no knowledge of such conversations. We continue to do a lot of important work at that lab and we expect to be there for the foreseeable future.”

But about a year ago, Plainsboro officials saw the writing on the wall and began taking a look at the property. FMC has 13 buildings sprawled over a campus that it has occupied for 50 years, and many of them are nearly empty. It leases space to other companies in its building that fronts Route 1. The facility once had an employee population as high as 1,"000, but cutbacks and changes in FMC’s operations scaled back the number to about 300.

“The whole site has been under discussion by the Master Plan Subcommittee,” says Cantu. “We had concerns because there’s a lot of undeveloped and under-utilized land there. We have been looking at how to deal with that.”

There is also the possibility of additional development on the property spurred by the hospital. The tract has some 50 acres that are open and developable, in addition to the company’s existing facilities on the site. Uses allowed under the current zoning are corporate administrative and professional offices; computer centers; training centers; product development and research labs; limited manufacturing; child care centers; and agricultural activities.

“You would normally expect that with a hospital there would be other peripheral types of buildings for support services,” says Cantu, adding, “That type of development is not tax exempt,”

According to the mayor, the township will work with hospital officials on the development of a plan. “We have excellent staff, a very strong planning board, and a group of people who have been at this for a long time. When you have that, it makes this much easier.”

The development of a plan for the hospital may be similar to the Plainsboro Village Center development, currently under construction on Schalks Crossing Road. Under that process Sharbell, the developer, and township staff worked together to develop a plan for the site.

“In any process that involves someone who wants to come into the community, it’s important to see what their desires are and at the same time meet the needs of the community. That way, in the end there’s no surprises,” saus Cantu.

The Washington, D.C., office of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, a 1,"700-person global firm known for its healthcare practice, has been named to design UMCP’s new center, in conjunction with Alexander Road-based Hillier architects.

The design would be environmentally friendly (adhering to concepts of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED). It could also be innovative, because UMCP will work with the Pebble Project, a research effort launched by the Center for Health Design to measure how design can make a difference in the quality of care and the financial performance of an institution.