The new private international school on Lambert Drive in Princeton has been buying up properties in the neighborhood in preparation for a controversial expansion that would need town approvals.
The head of a Chinese investment company bought the site of the former American Boychoir School in 2013 for $5.9 million in order to start a new non-profit school called the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS). The school has a sister school in Beijing, a high school affiliated with Renmin University.
Five properties on Lambert Drive and Rosedale Road totaling 6.41 acres were purchased by the school between January of 2013 and January 2015. Representatives for the school have also contacted at least five more property owners to try to convince them to sell their homes. Residents say the school has been offering property owners prices that are higher than market rate to encourage them to sell.
The school, which serves boarding students and day students, wants to increase its enrollment from 82 students to about 250 students.
“The expansion would totally change the character of the neighborhood,” one resident said.
The school has submitted an application for a use variance to permit a floor area ratio above what is allowed in the residential R-1 zone, Princeton Planning Director Lee Solow said.
“Based upon the state law an increase in floor area ratio is treated as a use variance, and the zoning board has jurisdiction over this type of variance, not the planning board,” Solow said. “The school itself is permitted as a conditional use, and any expansion will require site plan and conditional-use approval ,which will stay at the zoning board.”
The school wants to add an academic building, a gymnasium, a dining hall, a new dormitory, and parking lots to the campus. A two-story academic building would total more than 46,000 square feet, and the gym would be more than 35,000 square feet. The dining hall would be almost 12,000 square feet, and the proposed three-story dorm would be more than 36,000 square feet. A new access road would be built from Rosedale Road. Developer J. Robert Hillier is the architect for the project.
Some of the residents say the expansion will ruin their residential neighborhood. The residents are considering hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit to challenge the expansion.
The residents question how the projects fits in with the Princeton Community Master Plan. The plan’s principles include preserving and protecting the character of established neighborhoods, guiding future development with due regard for its impact upon future taxes, and preserving the existing character and mix of commercial, residential, and other land uses. The Rosedale area is considered a moderate density residential development. Under the master plan, redevelopment should be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood, residents say.
Built in 1917 by Gerard Lambert on an original 400-acre tract, the American Boychoir School was located on 17 acres on Lambert Drive from 1952 until 2012. The school put the property on the market in 2012 and moved to Plainsboro, where it now leases space at the former St. Joseph’s Seminary.
Neighborhood residents tried to come up with the money to buy the property and keep it as open space, but the Boychoir School rejected their offer of $3.5 million. In 2012, Hillier presented plan to neighbors to develop 35 age-restricted townhouses on the site, but residents voiced concerns about having a cluster development in their neighborhood, and Hillier tabled his plans.
The Bairong Education Foundation bought the property in 2012 and retained Hillier as the architect. The nonprofit is funded by Jiang Bairong, chairman of the multi-billion dollar Bairong Investment Holdings Group in Beijing, which is involved in real estate, chemical products logistics, and highway construction.
In early 2013, the school announced plans to request that the property be rezoned from an R-1 residential zone to an E-4 educational zone, with a goal of expanding student enrollment to 300. The grandfathered conditional-use zoning for the school that was in place for the American Boychoir School limits the enrollment to 82 students.
Neighborhood residents voiced strong opposition to the rezoning request in a neighborhood meeting. A request to ask for a zoning change was pulled from the Princeton Council agenda in February of 2013, and it appeared to residents that zoning change proposal was dropped.
Residents say there has been no communication between school representatives and the neighborhood since February of 2013.
They say the home purchases will mean the town’s tax rolls will take a big hit. The following five properties have been purchased by the school over the last two years:
– 271 Lambert Drive – January 8, 2013 – 1.19 acres – $1,868,000 – Property Taxes $37,770
– 49 Lambert Drive – May 12, 2013 – 1.26 acres – $900,000 – Property Taxes $15,985
– 486 Rosedale Road – June 3, 2013 – 1.22 acres – $843,000 – Property Taxes $16,255
– 474 Rosedale Road – July 9, 2014 – 1.22 acres – $880,000 – Property Taxes $16,468
– 9 Lambert Drive – Jan 15, 2015 – 1.52 acres – $1,400,000 – Property Taxes $25,972
The five properties total 6.41 acres. The tax revenue as residential properties was $122,450 annually, according to residents. The other five properties the school is attempting to purchase pay $160,000 a year in property taxes combined, residents say.
Some residents who oppose the expansion fear the changes in the neighborhood will drive down their property values, ruin their quality of life, and increase traffic in the area.
“We have agreed to live with the conditional use permit that regulated the development of the property,” one resident said. “PRISMS also purchased this property with full knowledge of the current R-1 zoning and the requirements of the conditional-use permit for up to 82 students. PRISMS should operate within the limits imposed by the existing zoning regulations, just as its neighbors on Lambert Drive and in the Rosedale area currently are required to do. Any change to the zoning would dramatically alter the make up of this neighborhood and is against the key tenets of the Community Master Plan.”