Letters: Princeton Needs More Apartment Buildings

To the Editor,

Princeton is in a unique position within the surrounding region as the one place that can provide a car-free lifestyle. While residents of West Windsor or Montgomery face the daily requirement to fight traffic on Route One or Route 206, the historic core of Princeton, built before the advent of the automobile, provides a critical density of employment and amenities built for walking rather than driving. Many in the heart of town live without owning a car and many others only drive once or twice a week for groceries.

The popularity of apartment living in dense, walkable neighborhoods has skyrocketed in recent years. Those of us who grew up in isolated suburban homes and spent half our youth in the car being driven from one activity to the other are very attracted to a life with fewer parking lots and highways. Access to this lifestyle in Princeton however has been frozen in time. According to the census the population of the former Princeton Borough is lower now than it was in 1950.  While enrollment and employment at the university and in town has exploded in the past sixty years the supply of housing within walking distance has remained essentially the same due to the effects of restrictive zoning. Instead of greater population density we’ve seen an exponential rise in the number of cars commuting into town with the attendant need for ever more parking and roadwork.

What’s the solution? Princeton needs apartment buildings like the one from AvalonBay so recently rejected by the planning board. The only solution to unmet demand is to increase the supply of housing. The solution to our traffic problems is to enable the hundreds and thousands who would prefer to live in walking distance to do so. The best thing to do for sustainability is to allow apartment living in town.The answer to our water runoff issues is to allow population growth to be accommodated at greater densities in town rather than amidst the suburban, car-dependent sprawl. The best thing we can do for our tax base is to encourage these many single and childless households to locate in Princeton rather than only allowing single-family homes which bring far more children to the schools. Opponents argue that four- and five-story apartment buildings aren’t in keeping with Princeton’s neighborhoods. Right in the heart of town, at Nassau and Witherspoon, the First National Bank built a five story office building as far back as 1902. That building covers the entire lot and the historic core of town has many similar structures. It’s that very density of population, employment, and amenities that makes Princeton something other than just a commuter suburb.  We should welcome increased population density in town, or else we will continue to live with increased density of traffic and asphalt.


David Keddie


  1. I agree 100% and I find it disappointing and surprising that some of our neighbors oppose medium-rise apartments on the hospital site. More density means more choice, less traffic, more tax base, more customers for local businesses, less sprawl-building on farmland, and more affordable units.

  2. So well said. Thank you, David. The opponents of this development are well-intentioned, but wrong-headed. This is the path to a truly sustainable and community-oriented Princeton.

  3. More low-rise apartments, certainly, would be in keeping with the historic character of Princeton–but I’d find Mr. Keddie’s argument more persuasive were he not also an avid supporter of the new controversial Westerly Road mega-church, whose environmentally-appalling suburban sprawl now defaces one of the last quiet corners of our precious Princeton Ridge.

    1. I not a spokesperson for the church though I am a member and supporter as you say. Briefly I will say that it was precisely the low-density zoning on the church’s current site, which is five acres and large enough to fit our entire new building and it’s parking, that forced the church to relocate to Bunn Drive. The church made attempts over the course of twenty years to expand on our current site, as zoning then allowed, only to have the zoning changed to specifically restrict the church to a lower density than the surrounding houses. If Princeton truly wished to not have us build on Bunn Drive it could easily have allowed us to build on our current location to which many students are able to walk on Sunday mornings. Bill Wolfe of the Princeton Environmental Commission actually suggested this to the planning board but was rebuffed. It was that experience with the church being forced out in favor of low-density single-family homes, and then being attacked for following the only path for expansion allowed by the zoning code, that gave me my desire to advocate for increased zoning density in the walkable core to prevent such situations in the future.

      1. That’s why I said “low-rise:” the 1970s Benson-Henderson building on the corner of Spring and Witherspoon set the pattern for a modern seven-story mixed-use apartment complex in downtown Princeton, and it’s visually intrusive…though not as hulking as the buildings that have since joined it. The Palmer Square Residences are an architectural, social and financial wall against the rest of town as intrusive and tone-deaf as Palmer Square itself was in 1930s, when its faux-Williamsburg corporate charms displaced a thriving stretch of mixed-use, mixed-race small businesses along Nassau. More mid-rise buildings will only make Princeton look like Stamford. wouldn’t you rather encourage the conversion of existing single-family homes within walking distance of downtown into condos and apartments? Also, it’s increasingly clear that downtown is for tourists and yuppies; middle-class Princetonians are using the shopping center as their real downtown. Central Princeton hasn’t been a functional small town since the early ’90s, when it lost its small department store (Clayton’s), its hardware store (Urken’s), its grocery (Davidson’s), its variety store (Woolworth’s) and its furniture store.

        1. I agree that turning single family homes into apartments is a good idea (I live in one myself and love the experience), but I do believe that it’s possible to create new affordable housing that fits Princeton’s aesthetic. I also think that affordable housing would help bring the “young professional” demographic into downtown, which can only help add to the vibrance of the town. That being said, I would disagree that downtown is only for yuppies. I’m solidly middle class and can find almost everything I need with in walking distance (even Princeton Shopping Center is only about a 20 minute walk and an even shorter bike ride).

          1. Mr. Keddie, Mr. Kirby: State College, PA is twice the size of Princeton, has a much different history, and still has considerable open land in the region. Don’t even think about making Princeton, town or campus, into another Penn State. Pointless, inappropriate. Improve what we have, certainly, but what Princeton does not need is growth for growth’s sake. (Mr. Keddie: Are you connected with local realtors, as well as being point man for the organization currently despoiling the fragile Princeton Ridge, against massive local opposition?)

            1. What motivates me is that I’m a chaplain, not a realtor. Seeing grad students paying enormous percentages of their income for substandard housing enriches landlords. Greater population density is the only way to bring down the market rate of rentals to more affordable levels. It’s a matter of social justice and environmental responsibility. It’s also in the best interests I believe of everyone in town.

              Penn State is indeed an order of magnitude larger than Princeton which makes it all the more remarkable that it has not only much easier traffic than Princeton, vastly more affordable downtown rentals, and more open space. The density is the key and State College has just as charming a downtown as Princeton and much more practical. The growth has already come to Princeton, we’ve just decided to force it out along Route and Route 206.

              Westerly had much more support from the community than opposition. At communiversity during the height of the controversy we had a great many people come by to express support for the church. We had not one person express a negative view face-to-face. If the zoning had allowed it the church could have built on its current site or on a site still within walking distance. As it stands we have as much right to build on Bunn Drive as Goldman Sachs across the street and the Institute for Defense Analysis next door, as much right as the luxury homes on large lots along Herrontown. We would have preferred a spot closer in but the planning board did not agree.

              1. Just think how much wonderful, much-needed in-town housing one could build for students and workers with the $19 million the huge new Westerly complex is costing! And enough with the false comparisons; IDA and Goldman bring a fraction of the traffic and runoff that your massive project entails.

                1. Aldo and Zeb; the reason the Church is building on the ridge (which I deplore) is because of stupid zoning! They wanted to redevelop in town but weren’t allowed! Zoning is to blame for the ridge site getting built on. Zoning restrictions are causing the loss of green space throughout central Jersey, because zoning doesn’t allow efficient land use in towns! If we keep insisting that only low-rise housing can be built, we will lose more green space and add more traffic!

                  1. The $800/month apartment rents in State College Mr Keddie cites have to do with location. Princeton is within commuting distance of both New York and Philadelphia and is a highly desirable town to live in. The “looser zoning/greater supply = lower cost apartments theory” doesn’t apply here.

                    1. Although there is no doubt that rents in State College and Princeton are affected by location, supply and demand is still the key determinant of price in a market economy. The risk with zoning restrictions is that they always distort the market, leading to unintended consequences. That is not to say that zoning is always wrong, but we should be very, very careful about unintended consequences. Right now, zoning has created a market were people who want to work in Princeton are forced out by high housing prices to live in new-build communities along the Rt 1 corridor and elsewhere. This is great for stores along Rt 1and land-owners who are able to sell existing open space for development, but it is creating car dependency leading to more traffic in Princeton and denying downtown Princeton retailers the benefit of more customers.

              2. What “luxury homes on large lots along Herrontown”? Of the three dozen houses on Herrontown Road between Bunn Drive and River Road, only two can conceivably be described as “luxury homes on large lots:” one, near the Snowden Lane intersection, is among the last working farms in Princeton; the other is a former farm. All the rest of the houses on Herrontown are valued on Trulia and Zillow as at or below the average for Princeton. We’re not exactly the West End. Please don’t try to describe us as such. And a truly Christian organization would not have insisted on its “right” to create runoff and traffic in an environmentally sensitive district. I find it hypocritical in the extreme for you to argue that downtown development will somehow save green space in Princeton when Westerly Road Church has so spectacularly wrecked the crest of Mount Lucas.

        2. A great many of the houses in walking distance have been converted into rentals. The supply is terribly inadequate though as shown by the fact that we’re the most expensive college town in America, ahead even of Berkeley. Many of these apartments are in terrible shape but it’s a landlords market with a captive audience of non-walking internationals and New Yorkers. My wife and I paid for apartments on Vandeventer that lacked laundry on site, had a major roof leak into our kitchen, didn’t have cabinets in the kitchen, had three pipes burst, vermin, electrical problems, insulation problems, a furnace that failed eight different nights, all cold snaps, one winter. In one apartment if the window air conditioning unit was turned on and the compressor kicked in on the fridge, the circuit would break requiring finding the outside entrance to the basement. That apartment was the converted attic and would alternate from swelteringly hot to freezing cold. I could go on and on, and all these apartments rent for as much or more than nice two-bedroom modern condos out on Canal Pointe just a few miles from campus.

          To have a more viable downtown with more useful stores than Ralph Lauren what is needed is population density that provides the critical mass of walkers to support basic necessities. In my home town of State College, PA that is the case and every need can be met on foot in a small part of the downtown.

  4. Please. No one forced Westerly to relocate to an environmentally-sensitive Ridge location. What would Jesus have done? Given their $19 million building budget to the poor, for starters, and not despoiled the shrinking natural resources of a town Mr. Keddie professes to love. I pray daily that the Westerly project cannot raise the money it needs to finish. As for Princeton apartments, why build more when many stand empty? We don’t need more luxury units, we need imaginative developers with a conscience.

    1. I’m sorry you feel that way Linda. We did not choose the zoning, the Princeton Township is responsible for that. I hope once the church is built you will see we are good stewards of the property, much more so than if a commercial entity had built on the property.

      1. A far more truly Christian decision would have been for Westerly to lead by example and rework their original, conveniently sited five acres within existing codes. That would be a real example of service, frugality, and community. The Bunn Drive complex is like a mini-mall, and very difficult to reach except by private auto. Hard to believe that He who served the needy and loved the earth is overly thrilled. Ditto for the arguments re more and bigger downtown development: exactly why is growth a good thing, in postmodern Princeton?

        1. Again, I don’t speak for the church but I do think these accusations are unfair. We made just such an effort Stephan, only to have the zoning changed to prevent any growth. A second time we sought to use one of the houses as classroom space, only to be refused by the planning board, even though we have classes meeting in lobbies and converted closets. The current structure is only 10,000 square feet despite being on five acres. It’s at a lower floor-area-ratio than the surrounding houses. We’ve been trying to find a solution for over twenty years, most of my lifetime. We turn people away at the door some Sundays. Princeton has grown a great deal since the original building went in in the ’50s and the church has grown with it. It is the town that prevented any ability to meet that growth on the current site and pointed us to the site on Bunn Drive. I find it a great shame. The Christian thing to do is to have a church with seats for those who want to come, with classrooms for their children. The zoning dictates how that need can be met so after 20 years we’ve acquiesced to the zoning.

          1. So build out near Rte 1 instead of bringing all your new traffic to one of princeton’s last natural areas. No way is that good stewardship, of the spirit or of nature. WWJD? Not that. But back to the apartment question…why do you want more growth, if we cannot manage what we have here now?

            1. The church attempted to move out of Princeton once but was refused. It’s hard finding a home when you’re tax-exempt. Princeton Township on the other hand wanted us out of a residential neighborhood and into a commercial one such as Bunn Drive. We don’t make the planning decisions.

              In answer to your question on growth I believe the question is how best to manage it. If we don’t allow mid-rise apartment buildings in walking distance then we force all growth, as has been the case for decades, to be accommodated through building in a suburban style that eats up open space and multiplies traffic. Allowing for more density in town allows for growth in a way that preserves open space, reduces the need for a car, utilizes existing public services, and improves the tax base. It seems to me the smartest way to manage growth.

              1. The hospital site is actually quite inconvenient: a long hard uphill walk to Nassau Street (where, sorry, there are actually very few affordable services, unless you’re rich) and a traffic-choked Witherspoon Street to contend with by car or bike. Stuffing hundreds of more people in that site is a recipe for disaster. Low-rise housing, in the style of Princeton Community Village, is at least more humane. What the Witherspoon-John neighborhood really needs is a park. I vote with the commenters here who would prefer to invest in bike trails, walking paths, and green space…not bigger, uglier buildings in a town known worldwide for its distinctive history and architecture.

                1. The hospital site is actually a shorter walk to where I work on campus that the parking deck where the university allows me to park my car. The reason people are willing to pay as much for a studio apartment on the hospital site as they would pay for a two-bedroom with convenient parking on Canal Pointe is because they would in fact choose to walk for many things including work. Many prefer mid-rise apartment living and find it very much more humane than having to drive everywhere for everything. Can’t both lifestyles coexist?

                  The old hospital site is currently home to big, ugly buildings and one way or another I hope it will be redeveloped. Even if it is replaced with buildings on the same scale as have historically existed on Nassau Street, it will bring far fewer people and cars to the neighborhood than the hospital did. Indeed, if I could live on Witherspoon it would save me from having to commute down the street as I do now from the northern, auto-oriented, part of town.

                2. Janet, if you allow 280 units on the hospital site, that is 280 households who will benefit from and help campaign for bike trails and walking paths. Exclude the 280 households and you get car commuters instead. If we stick to low-density, more green space must be paved to provide housing. It’s already happening in locations all around Princeton. These low-density developments are car-dependent and therefore create traffic. We need to bring people who normally commute into Princeton into the community. Then they will support proper retail right here in Princeton. Instead of tourist stores on Nassau St, we can add proper retail.

                  A reliance on low-density housing is the problem, not the solution. You might think the hospital site is out of the way, but it’s a 10 min walk to Nassau Sq or a 5 min cycle-ride to Princeton shopping center (source: Google Maps). You might not want to live in an apartment but many people would like to at least have the choice. The buildings don’t have to be ugly, see my photos, above. I like parks too, but Community Park is 2 blocks from the former hospital site, whereas there is hardly any affordable housing anywhere in Princeton and too much traffic from people excluded because they can’t afford to live here.

          2. Um…adding Saturday services, plus arranging for a satellite church out on Route 1 or in one of the neighboring towns, as many other congregations sensibly choose to do? Maybe (gasp) you could even have reached out to Trenton, and brought the Gospel to a struggling population, instead of building a gigantic and environmentally questionable luxury church. The Bunn location is especially hard on students, who now have to be bused or driven miles away to attend your services: not exactly a lesson in Christian humility and stewardship.

            1. Stephan, you should re-direct your anger to the Planning Board who insist that only low-density housing can be allowed near central Princeton. I live near Bunn Drive and I basically hate the new church. The churchgoers in town should be walking to a redeveloped church in town, but that was forbidden by the Planning Board. Restrictive zoning is driving the loss of green space and we risk perpetuating this problem by using land at the hospital site in an inefficient way.

  5. Tall apartments just make us into a mini-New Brunswick. Add more population to Princeton, and you kill the lifestyle Mr. Keddie craves. Besides, the combined Princetons did a big study two years ago and found that residents want, above all, more open space preserved, more biking trails, more walking paths, and more parks. Not more urban construction.

    1. You preserve open space by in-fill development like at the hospital site. You preserve more open space by allowing increased density. The alternative is that people live in single-family homes built on farmland and then clog the roads commuting into the town. If more people were able to live in the heart of Princeton, they wouldn’t need to drive in, blocking our roads. As for biking trails, walking paths and parks, these are made affordable and sustainable by an increased tax base, which could come from new residents of apartment buildings and increased commerce enabled by those residents. That could also mean lower property taxes for the rest of us.

    2. To my mind the mid-rise apartment buildings in town are the best way to preserve open space. The AvalonBay proposal would house 500 people on just five acres, acres that have already been built and used at far greater density by the hospital. At another five-acre site nearby in town the zoning allows for only ten homes, likely to house around 30 people. If those 500 instead have to find homes at low-density then they would occupy over 80 acres, and need to use cars for everything to boot. That consumes far more open space.

      As to adding population to Princeton, the people are already here. I read a figure of over 28,000 cars coming into Princeton each day. Without those commuters our downtown would be lifeless, but how much more vibrant would it be if we had more apartments rather than parking lots and congestion. I grew up in State College, PA, the home of Penn State. The small part of that town in walking distance of campus has many apartment buildings and they do nothing to destroy the lifestyle, quite the opposite. With that greater population density the traffic is much easier and the downtown has critical mass enough for a proper grocery store as well as every amenity, including medical specialists, all in the small walkable core.

  6. What is the appropriate number of units for the former hospital site? 10 units/acre? 25? 50? 100 units/acre? Why is 50 units/acre good? Award-winning smart growth architect Stefanos Polyzoides believes 20-25 units/acre is reasonable in these types of settings. It’s almost impossible to have a sense of building in densities greater than 35 units/acre. The Philadelphia Science Museum exhibit on cliimate change rates both town living and city living as highly sustainable (they both have their pluses and minuses). The exhibit does not suggest humans should all live in cities.

    1. One reasonable standard is the existing use of the site, which would allow for far greater density than just 50 units/acre. Any replacement of the hospital will produce far fewer car trips and far less noise than what came before. Another reasonable standard for what density looks like in a town can be found in the five story First National Bank Building, built in 1902, at the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon. Over a hundred years ago Princeton citizens were building at a floor area ratio of 5 and the zoning for the hospital site is only 1.8. A third reasonable standard would be at least 30 units/acre which the EPA sets as the minimum necessary to support a bus line with a ten minute headway. A fourth reasonable approach would be to embrace density in the walkable core as good for the environment, good for traffic, good for open space preservation, good for water runoff, good for affordability, good for freedom of lifestyle choice, good for diversity and no threat to those who prefer a low density lifestyle. Those who wish single-family homes can only be helped if many residents wish to voluntarily concentrate themselves in mid-rise apartment buildings in town. It will leave the roads and parking lots open for those who prefer more space.

      What I find unreasonable is a college town with stratospheric housing costs that maintains zoning for single-family homes on large lots in walking distance of campus. If enough of the small walkable core of the town was zoned for 20-25 units/acre then there would be an abundance of housing. As it stand even on Nassau Street one finds single-story structures and even open parking lots. I do not think this is a smart approach to growth.

      1. One hundred years ago Princeton was a Jim Crow town (pop. ca. 4000 when the University was in session) with slaughterhouses and tanneries on Witherspoon Street, not to mention a small lake where Spring Street now stands (hence the name.) 1902 comparisons are pointless. If I wanted a conventional college town, I’d head for State College, PA, or maybe Champaign-Urbana, but Princeton is anything but conventional. And it’s already built out. Where is all this Princeton farmland you keep citing, anyway? Long since interred under concrete, malls..and megachurches.

      2. Points:
        1. You mention the Palmer Sq Apts and the five-story 1902 First National Bank Bldg (back then it was the bankers who had access to capital too — no kidding). These buildings are in the heart of Princeton’s downtown, not in the midst of single-family neighborhood as is the hospital site.
        2, The hospital itself is not a reasonable standard for the bulk of the buildings that may replace it (it doesn’t make sense to talk about the hospital’s density in terms of number of residential units). The hospital received all sort of exceptions from zoning restrictions because it was a non-profit institution for the public good (and perhaps it shouldn’t have). I disagree that we should give this privilege to a for-profit developer.
        3. The am traffic rush from a 280-unit development may well be greater than from the hospital. The concern is schoolchildren crossing Witherspoon to CP and traffic was a problem with the hospital in operation. . Why might the problem become worse? *** The traffic study did not take into account the fact that several hundred hospital employees parked off-site — and thus the study subtracted too many cars from the final estimated traffic with 280-unit development for the am rush.
        4. I’ll, think about your points re 30/units per acre and buses and 20-25/acres on existing open lots in town .

        1. Palmer Square is the heart of downtown now, but when it was built, it was a residential area containing single family homes.

          See: https://phs.prs.k12.nj.us/pulse/landmarks/landmarks.html

          If we had kept to single family homes back then, there would have been no Palmer Square. But that is the past. We should plan for the future, and address the lack of affordable housing, and the limited number of units within walking distance of downtown/University. Both of these goals are best served by building units that allow more people to live in this community.

          1. Why do you want more people to live in Princeton? I don’t. There’s too many people here already, and too few know enough about the town and its complex history. Princeton does not need to grow; it needs to curate what it has, provide some decent housing for the heroic people in service and support jobs who now drive 30, 50, even 70 miles to work here, and it needs to create a coherent, attractive system of bike trails/walking paths to make bike commuting safe and pleasant, and it definitely needs to preserve the green spaces and remarkable (low-rise) architecture that make the town distinctive.

            1. I want more people to have the opportunity to live in Princeton because if they don’t live in Princeton, they live somewhere else (Montgomery, Franklin Park, L’ville) and then drive into town to try to get to work, blocking the roads, endangering pedestrians and cyclists. If more of those people were able to live in Princeton and walk to work-which would be enabled to the greatest extent by mid-rise apartments-then we would have less traffic and more people supporting our local retail. The people are coming here anyway, and why wouldn’t they, it’s a great town after all!? They just can’t live in Princeton because there’s so little affordable housing. Also, if more people were able to live in Princeton, they would have an incentive to lobby for exactly the kind of green spaces, trails/walking paths that you mention, instead of just seeing our roads as thoroughfares.

              1. ” If more of those people were able to live in Princeton and walk to work”

                Most people driving through Princeton to get to work wouldn’t be able to walk to work. Besides Princeton University there are no large employers in Princeton. Unless of course, your real complaint is that there isn’t enough housing for Princeton University staff.

                1. There isn’t enough housing for Princeton University staff, but the University are trying to rectify that. Just 17.1% of the people who work in Princeton work for the University anyway, which is likely to surprise a lot of people. We need to think of places to live for the other 83% of people, so that they can get to work without driving cars.

                    1. That’s fine, but if they do want to live in Princeton, they should be encouraged to do so,. Every day we have 24,000 people driving into town to go to work. That puts a lot of pressure on roads and parking. If people can get to work without using a car, it benefits everybody.

                    2. Just because 24,000 people drive into work in Princeton does not mean there is a demand for housing in town. I would venture that twice that many drive into Trenton for work but I don’t think they want to live there.

                    3. It’s true that evidence of commuting is not evidence of demand. The evidence of demand is (1) 1,900 people on affordable housing lists and (2) local property prices that have been bidded up to a much higher level than local towns. If there was no demand for housing, house prices would be lower than surrounding towns- which is exactly what you see in Trenton. But the opposite is true in Princeton, hence the Trenton comparison doesn’t hold.
                      Some proportion of daily car commuters no doubt prefer to live outside of Princeton but others would certainly live in Princeton if they had a reasonable option in their price range. Enabling these people to live in Princeton would reduce the total number of miles traveled each rush hour and increase the proportion of people who are able to walk or bike to work. These are good things for everybody.

                    4. I am not sure there is a rental shortage in Princeton. Local real estate agents have told me that this was the worst summer in almost 30 years for renting apartments. There is alot of spare capacity this year — unrented units. One reason may be that the university is now providing more housing. Jefferson-Moore and Tree Sreets neighborhoods have market rate apartments/duplexes ($2200-2500 for a 3 bedroom duplex, lower for 2-bedroom) that are comparable to moderate COAH affordable rents.

          2. You seem to suggest that as the single-family neighborhood that preceded Palmer Square disappeared, so should the single-family neighborhoods in walking distance of Princeton’s current downtown. Many will fight that.

            While I am in complete agreement about the desirability of housing units within walking distance of people’s workplaces, personally, I believe the solutions to humans’ overuse of the environment and climate change should come from smart shrinkage, not from smart growth and turning the center of towns into a sea of mid-rise apartment buildings. In addition, we need a reframing of what economic health means — it just can’t be measured by the mass production of goods that are disposable, nor the building of disposable homes that will last only a short while.

            1. Nobody wants to replace single family neighborhoods. We are talking about an in-fill project on the old hospital site and allowing choice. Compact, walkable development like this is an important approach for reducing our environmental impact- this is not a fringe idea, it’s the agreed policy of the EPA: https://www.epa.gov/dced/economic_success.htm
              I would also agree with David Keddie’s point that density supports *public transit* which is somewhat lacking in Princeton. The most sustainable neighborhood is one where single family homes co-exist with some element of higher density housing.

              1. I just had a quick look through through this EPA smart growth white paper. I didn’t see anything advocating mid-rise buildings over low-rise in-fill development in towns. In fact, the cover photo is a low-rise streetscape.

                Re: The importance of 30/units per acre to support bus lines. That wouldn’t work with just one site at this density, would it? Sounds like you would have to have that kind of density in the entire neighborhood.

                This kind of thinking is what gives me the idea that somebody might want to replace single family neighborhoods … and what about David Keddie’s comment in an earlier online discussion about State College, PA where all areas walkable to the university are mid-rise apartment buildings — and what a great scene that is …..

                1. Alexi, the EPA report makes frequent comparisons favoring high-density, compact development over low-density housing and references specific case studies-see below. Nobody wants single family neighborhoods to go away, they just want choice and the demonstrated economic and environmental benefits to the community that come with density.

                  Executive summary:
                  “Developing at higher densities uses land more efficiently”

                  Page 4:
                  “Extensive research has found that compact development patterns, higher density, mixed uses, and other characteristics of smart growth development can reduce the costs of providing public infrastructure and delivering services.12,13 ”

                  Page 6:
                  “A study in Rhode Island found that the state could save more than $1.4 billion over 20 years if its next 20,000 housing units were built in a compact configuration instead of a low-density, large-lot, scattered pattern of development. The study showed savings on roads, schools, and utilities and calculated the benefits of conserving farms and forest lands.”

                  1. Yes, but what IS the appropriate smart-growth high density for in-fill in a single family neighborhood. Smart-growth architects talk about a 20-25 unit/acre range, more than double that of the area surrounding the former hospital site. It is hard to get a sense of building at any more than 35/units/acre. The current 50 units/acre is extraordinarily.high.

                    The central Princeton single-family neighborhoods are already high-density small-lot neighborhoods. They are not “low-density, large-lot” development.

                    1. 50 units/acre would be lower-impact than the previous use, i.e. the hospital, which was accommodated just fine for decades. Go to lower density and you throw away the potential environmental and economic benefits coming from density. I don’t know what “a sense of building” means but I think it’s perfectly possible to have an attractive building at 50 units/acre (although I accept that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’). As for central Princeton, it is hardly high-density. Central Manhattan is high-density, but nobody is arguing for that. We are talking about mixing a small mount of medium-density choices into the existing blend. The hospital site is a rare opportunity to add density, because most of Princeton is already built-out, so 50 units/acre seems like the most appropriate and efficient use of the land.

                    2. 50 units/acre corresponds to over 50,000 people/square mile.

                      To put that into perspective Brooklyn has 35,000 people/sq mi; Trenton has 11,000 people per sq mi and Princeton 1800 people/sq mile.

                      So 50 units/acre IS high-density.

                      Why do you think it is perfectly possible to have an attractive building that complements a single-family neighborhood at 50 units/acre? Are you an architect? I’ve talked to architects, one an award-winning smart growth architect, who would disagree. In fact, their point is you examine the site and design the site for smart growth in the context of the neighborhood — the design then gives you the appropriate number of units.

                      Why do you think 50 units/acre would be lower impact than the hospital use?

                    3. What is the point in debating what the definition is for high-density?Clearly there is scope for disagreement; I would say you aren’t entering high-density until you get over 500 units per acre. Anyway, this is a 5 acre site, so it seems weird to extrapolate to people / square mile.

                      The real question is: do we want to throw away a rare opportunity to bring the proven environmental and economic benefits of a compact walkable development to our community?

                      I know you can build nice buildings at 50 units/acre because I’ve seen them. No, I’m not an architect but I don’t need to be able to design a building to know whether it looks good or not. 50 units/acre would mean fewer people accessing the site than with the hospital, there would be no deliveries like there was with the hospital and no biohazardous waste like with the hospital. And the Avalon plan proposed a building that was lower than the existing hospital structure. 280 units would certainly be less impactful than the hospital to the local community and it when considering the environment more generally it would be the most efficient use of land.

                    4. Ok. If you have any photos to share of the 50 unit/acre (or more) buildings that you think would complement the former hospital site and the neighborhood, please share.

                    5. Sure…here is, in order, a development at 200 units/acre; a development at 100 units/acre; Louisburg Square, Boston, at 52.9 units/acre; and a development in Gaithersburg MD at 50 units / acre.

                    6. I would say that the appropriate density is the density that allows enough housing to make the market rate affordable and to allow walkable lifestyles. The alternative to density is sprawl. Can’t we allow for density in the only part of the region that can really attract it? Even if the walkable part of Princeton was at somewhat greater density almost all of Princeton would still be low-density and auto-oriented, not to mention every other part of the region as well. We ask only for a choice as to how to live, for a market able to provide housing to meet demand, for an environmentally and socially responsible response to growth.

                    7. Thanks. (1) I like the Touriel Bldg — it’s a smaller individual building, only 35 apartments. So I don’t see it as a good example of 200 units/acre. (2) What kind of public open space is between the bldgs in the 100 units/acre photo? Looks like a city environment. Where? (3) Louisburg Square is beautiful — does the 50 + unit/acre include the green park in the center? (4) sorry this one — thumbs down!

                      Where do you find the 500 units/acre you define as high density? Manhattan? NYC? Places in the tri-state area?

                    8. BTW: you lose the sense of building in the 100 units/acre photo (photo 2), as the smart-growth architect said. True, too, of Louisburg Square. Probably built by the Ronald Ladell of the day. Still that one makes the grade as far as I am concerned. All these too tall for the hospital site and the single-family neighborhood around it…?

                    9. Alexi, when you are typing a new comment, look to the bottom left of the comment box, there is a small icon, which, if you click it, will bring up a window for you to choose a file on your computer to upload as a picture…

                    10. Thank you again for your photos SFB. Here is one I really like — an award-winning smart-growth project in South Pasadena, CA, designed with extensive neighborhood involvement , and it so handsomely complements the historic single-family neighborhood. Low-rise. I’m practicing adding a photo to a comment!

                    11. Alexi, this development is 40 units/acre, which just shows how crazy it would be to limit the hospital site to 25 units/acre or whatever, because we’d be excluding stuff like this. Some people are describing 50 units/acre as ‘extraordinarily high’, whereas it is only incrementally more than Mission Meridian Village, an attractive, 2-3 level development as shown in your photo. P.S, can we bring the streetcar too? 🙂

                    12. Yeah, this development is 40 units/acre, although I am not sure that was the architect’s preference. The housing is rather tight around the courtyards.See the photo. Those CA bungalows that surround this development are a lovely type of small house with garden. Seems sustainable to me. I do sympathize with those in Portland who are losing urban green space to county-wide mandated smart-growth. Seems better to have lower-density towns surrounded by green space and linked to a dense city (choice!) by rail lines rather than one big conglomeration. See the Cost of Smart Growth powerpoint on this link: https://americandreamcoalition.org/disasters/disasterinfo.html

                      BTW, 50 units/acre is 25% denser than 40 — not “incrementally more.” And for the case of the MRRO — what about the park? To provide it would require a decreased density even if the homes were as dense as this development.

                      The streetcar — I saw one in your link to the Historical Society page. Now that one didn’t require a 30 units/acre density. I guess because few people drove cars. We spend alot time talking about high-level policy and reading reports, — yet those who could walk and bike around town don’t. My teenage son is embarrassed that I make him walk everywhere — he says no one else does. It seems we have a cultural problem (marketing?) to solve before we delve so deeply into these structural changes. I grant you smart-growth development at least leaves open the possibility that people could walk or bike.

                    13. I’m glad we can at least agree that 40 units/acre is an acceptable density.

                      I don’t understand the resistance to a taller building. If we go to 5 levels, instead of the 2-3 levels in Meridian Mission Village, then we could add additional affordable units and have a bigger park, while still having a building that is (1) lower than the existing hospital building and (2) around the same height as Township Hall across the street. I would add that many contemporary low-rise developments, in addition to causing car-dependence and sprawl, can also be really ugly!

                      I’m sure your son would prefer it if you bought him a car (what teenager wouldn’t?), but next time he says that ‘nobody walks’, you can point out that 23% of Princeton residents use walking or bicycling as their primary mode for commuting, according to the most recent US census data. Walking and cycling is advantageous, because it reduces traffic, maintains clean air, reduces road maintenance costs, protects against climate change, promotes fitness and reduces our dependence on dubious foreign oil-producing regimes.

                    14. I didn’t say 40 units/acre was an acceptable density for the former hospital site 🙂
                      sneaky ….

                      My son is not at the driving stage yet. Are you cutting and pasting from EPA reports?

                    15. ??? You said you ‘really like’ Meridian Mission Village, which is 40 units/acre, but you wouldn’t find that density acceptable for the hospital site? That confuses me! And not just that, I’m really struggling with:

                      – You want affordable housing, but you insist on low-rise development, which requires the most land ($) and more expensive infrastructure ($) per unit.

                      – You want parks and green spaces, but you favor low-rise development, which because of its low residential density, requires more green space to be paved to accommodate the same number of people.

                      – You want nice shops and retail, but you want the type of housing that limits the number of customers who might sustain those businesses.

                      – You want to do the right thing for the environment, but you oppose the kind of compact, walkable development that the EPA endorses.

                      When will you realize that the insistence on low-rise is the problem, not the solution? Why are you so insistent that the new development should be limited to 2 or 3 levels, when the hospital had 7 or 8 levels-and many other buildings in Princeton, including that end of Witherspoon St have 5 or 6 levels?

                      You can’t regulate into existence some imaginary perfect development. We have to either accept a taller building or sacrifice affordable units and efficient land use. I realize that, because you like low-rise so much, you’re going to release the Kraken on any individual, member of the Council/Planning Board, or developer who promotes anything higher than 2 or 3 levels. But please try to understand that many of us who favor such a development do so because we see great value and advantages with compact walkable development. And, yes, I’m done now.

                    16. Thanks for teaching me a new word — Kraken. A Scandinavian sea monster — sounds interesting.


                      – I do want compact open development. I live in a single-family
                      neighborhood that is defined as smart-growth under Massachusetts
                      smart-growth legislation (8 units/acre for single family). Our
                      neighborhood has over 10 units/acre, and I walk and bike almost
                      everywhere, including shopping.

                      -The low-rise building in South Pasadena I posted is an award-winning
                      smart-growth project that I found in an EPA smart-growth white paper.
                      Why do you say I oppose the “compact, walkable development that the EPA endorses”? The EPA smart-growth white papers have photos of low-rise buildings.

                      -For some reason 2- 3- stories is what appeals to many humans in a
                      town environment. I was looking around the Princeton University campus and most of it is 2 or 3 levels; the few 4-level buildings don’t feel right. Do you like the way Palmer Sq Residences overshadow the Witherspoon Bakery?

                      – Yes, the low-rise I posted has 40 units/acre. The architect who
                      designed it feels that 20-25 units/acre is a more reasonable number for a neighborhood of single-family homes.

                      — Massachusetts smart-growth legislation defines anything over 20
                      units/acre as smart growth for multi-family apartments. The former
                      hospital site is now zoned at 50 units/acre. That is 2 1/2 times as

                      — Are you saying that the finances don’t work for a low-rise, 20
                      unit/acre development on 5-plus acres with 20% affordable housing and local retail? That you can’t get that and a park? Green building
                      construction saves money rather than costs.

                      — I agree that you can’t regulate a development. Instead, a good
                      architect does site and massing diagrams for the site after reaching
                      consensus with stakeholders and neighbors on design (I hear this is a 3-day process). Form-based zoning is then based on this. The site and architecture help determine the best density. Best yet would be if a
                      developer was in on the process and the zoning was written for something that actually was to be built.

                      -You still didn’t tell me where to find the 500 units/acre you define as high density 🙂 Photos?

                    17. SFB — One more thing. The 40 unit/acre Mission Meridian village is on 1.65 acres. It may not be possible to have good design at this density/height on a larger site, like 5 acres. The 35-apartment Touriel Bldg you posted at 200 units/acre but was built on a very small site — if you put that much density on a large site in Berkeley it would be oppressively massive given its context (Berkeley).

                2. There are many single-family homes in walking distance of campus in State College. The beauty of density is that it can accommodate an enormous number of people in a small area. In State College’s case some 50,000 in a relatively small area which gives to single-family homes just two or three blocks from the main street. I would encourage you to visit State College, especially for the arts festival in the summer. The traffic is much easier than Princeton despite the town having a much larger population and the downtown is delightful, with incredibly affordable housing (three-bedroom apartment for $800/month), and a great deal of charm.

                  1. David — I disagree with your comment in your Patch letter on the same topic: “Those who do pay the exorbitant price for rentals in old homes within the core of town often find decrepit conditions and abusive landlords who count on the fact that there will always be a desperate non-driving graduate student who has no choice but to pay high rents for terrible conditions in order to be within walking distance.”

                    Most pricing of rentals is completely fair and affordable. Poor conditions do occur in a handful of homes but certainly not “often”.

                    1. Respectfully Alexi, nothing about Princeton is affordable. It’s the most expensive college town in America according to a recent study. A grad student told me at her previous university she paid just $225/month for her third of the rent on a two-story three bedroom apartment in walking distance of her campus. That is the norm across the country where density is allowed. In Princeton I know grad students who spend as much as $1250/month and most spend at least $600-$700 for a half or third of an apartment.

                      My wife and I have lived in four apartments in Princeton and all but one of them were terrible as I described. As a chaplain to grad students I have more stories than I have time to tell them. Two separate experiences with racial discrimination from landlords, furnaces that failed repeatedly in winter, burst pipes, live wires, antique heating, poor insulation, broken windows, lack of laundry on-site, water cut off because the landlord failed to pay the bill, mice, match-lit stoves, lack of stoves, lack of kitchen cabinets, rooms where the wiring didn’t work, and so on. Some landlords of course are good and some of the housing stock is well kept but that typically comes at extra cost. When I posted my original letter on Facebook it drew tremendous response from grad students. Also, the graduate student government did a survey and this issue was a central one for that population. We intend to advocate more actively on these issues.

                    2. David — I posted some ads from TT for apartments in the center of town at less than what Avalon would charge … they sound nice … — but I guess Planet Princeton doesn’t want to post from competitor sites. Here are some of the details: $1800/mo on Palmer Sq, 1-BDR condo, living room, large kitchen, hardwood floors, fireplace …. and … $1495 for a 1 BR duplex, next to Princeton University … and … $3000 for modern 3 bdrm 2 1/2 bath cottage in Princeton’s Western section …

                    3. Alexi, I have not blocked any of the posts in this entire comment thread. Please ask me about an issue or do your homework before making claims that I blocked a post from ” a competitor site.” Thanks.

                    4. sorry Krystal … I wonder why that post didn’t make it … I posted it yesterday. I thought this was a policy of Planet Princeton that I had forgotten when writing that post.

                    5. Alexi and Krystal, I lost a comment as well; I think it was because I had inserted 4 html links in the comment, and Disqus may automatically block a comment with lots of html links because many spam posts contain links like these. I think if we post comments with html links, they risk being blocked.

                    6. Thanks for pointing that out. I am not blocking anything so it must be Disqus. It must be the number of links. Makes sense in terms of preventing spamming. I looked and it does not appear I have a way to control this in Disqus options. I will investigate further.

    2. Alexi, your own profile picture is of a four story structure built right to the lot boundaries, covering the entire lot. Those Palmer Square apartments above include a private patio for residents. Surely we can agree that is a reasonable model for density.

  7. It’s not quite fair to characterize the objectors as being against increased population density. Most seem to recognize the benefits both to the environment and to the community of a project that fills the need for rental apartments in a somewhat walkable neighborhood.

    We can gain the benefits of increased density cited in this letter by cutting the current allowed density in half, which is still much greater than nearly every other neighborhood in Princeton. We gain much needed apartments while preserving the scale and character of an established, charming and well-connected neighborhood which has fostered the sense of community so cherished in Princeton.

    Does Mr. Keddie object to that?

    1. Any new apartments would be an improvement on the current situation so I certainly agree with that. I believe balance would be found however when every commuter into Princeton who would otherwise live in an apartment in town is able to find one that they can afford. The price differential at the moment is staggering, as are the traffic issues that result.

      This location certainly isn’t the only spot for new housing, and if there wasn’t such a desperate shortage there wouldn’t be such a need for housing on this site. However, this is the one opportunity that has come up and I do think a balance that leaves commuters such as myself still driving through the neighborhood, rather than living in it, is not a balance favorable either to residents or those who would fill the unbuilt apartments.

      1. The only way to get affordable rents for lower income people is through the controlled affordable housing program.The uncontrolled rents for the proposed development will go as high as the market will bear, which is likely quite high. To address your concerns, what we need to look at is the number of controlled affordable units we’re getting at a given density because the majority is not going to be affordable to lower income people.

        Personally I share your concern about unaffordable Princeton rents, but it’s a problem with no realistic solutions in a capitalist economic system where property owners sell to the highest bidder and the market determines rents. We shouldn’t make decisions believing in a fantasy land where adding lots of apartments is going to lower rents – just look at NYC to see how that works.

        Also, I doubt that many commuters to Princeton would choose to live in AvalonBay over where they’re living now. For the same Princeton rent, you can get a lot more living space in Ewing, East Windsor or some other nearby town and that’s the choice that a lot of low or moderate income people make who don’t have a controlled affordable unit. There was a study of our volunteer firefighters, many of whom live out of town, and few of them would choose to move to one of these apartments, even with a slightly reduced “workforce” rent, over where they live now.

        1. Ed Glaeser at Harvard has done tremendous work demonstrating that restrictive zoning is the cause of unaffordable housing costs in the Northeast, California coast, and other heavily regulated parts of the country:


          Paul Krugman also references this reality in his famous article predicting the housing bubble:


          New York had affordable housing at market rates, with costs of new homes and apartments slightly above construction costs, until rent control, rent stabilization, and restrictive zoning choked the market. Zoning has had the same effect on Princeton. If demand increases but the supply is restricted, as in the case for housing near campus, the price spikes and landlords are enriched. In my hometown of State College, PA a nice three bedroom a block from campus can be had for $800/month. This is true despite the presence of 45,000 students. This affordability is a result of a market allowed to meet the demand for density. The lack of affordable rentals is Princeton can be changed by merely allowing greater density, to the reduction of traffic, benefit of the tax base, and preservation of open space.

  8. Frankly, as a 50-year resident, I don’t want more people in Princeton! Not everyone can live here, just as not everyone can attend Princeton University. Deal.

    1. If we don’t allow more residents we create more drivers. Respectfully, the people are already in Princeton they just have to bring their cars with them. Princeton is the most expensive college town in America and, according to the Washington Post, one of the top twenty zipcodes for concentration of the top 1% of the income scale. Do we want a Princeton just for the wealthy? Do we want a Princeton where non-drivers can’t find housing in walking distance? Do we want a Princeton with ever more traffic clogging our roads coming into town? We can accommodate growth, reduce traffic, preserve open space, and improve the tax base of town by building at greater density in town.

  9. Mr. Keddie owes it to the readers of Planet Princeton to provide a bit more context for his arguments. A Google search of the keywords “David Keddie,” “Princeton” and “libertarian” make it clear that he is not merely a concerned citizen/evangelical but an active and committed libertarian. See, for example, his 2011 comment about Princeton planning issues on the planning blog HumanTransit.org: “After recent experiences with planning boards I’ve become convinced that a return to a libertarian view of property rights, free of zoning, is essential…A libertarian approach would free the individual landowner from the inevitable anti-development instincts of neighbors.”

    1. Linda, medium-density apartments like David Keddie advocates will bring affordable housing, reduced paving of green spaces, and reduced traffic. Compact walkable development like this is endorsed and recommended by, among many others, the EPA, an organization not known for its libertarian leanings. Everyone across the political spectrum stands to gain from this project. Let’s consider the proposal on the basis of what it offers Princeton’s future, not what Mr Keddie’s politics/religious affiliations are.

        1. Oh, please don’t bring facts into this. It’s like watching Fox News versus the Historical Society of Princeton. But yes, Mr. Keddie’s online trail is a rich and fascinating one. I especially like the Tweets where he howls for Paul Krugman’s head on a pike (“disgraceful,” “despicable,” “suspend”).

          1. Robin,

            For the sake of clarity and context I did not call for Professor Krugman’s head on a pike. My tweet read:

            “@NYTimeskrugman Mr. Krugman, I find your post disgraceful. Could you not leave off the partisan rancor for one day in a decade?”

            The context was a post by Professor Krugman on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 which was politically partisan. I found this to be inappropriate for the occasion as I expressed in a tweet as well as a letter to the Times. I didn’t mean that as a general statement of dislike or distaste for the Professor who I don’t doubt is a decent man. Indeed, in this comment thread I linked to him and spoke favorably of his prediction of the housing bubble and analysis of restrictive zoning as a primary contributing factor in that crisis. I didn’t mean for this discussion over zoning to become rancorous and would happily communicate with you in person or via email to resolve any misunderstandings. My email is djkeddie@princeton.edu.

            David Keddie

            1. David,

              A kind offer. But first, do please assure the citizens of Princeton that you are not the David Keddie (a/k/a “Libloather”) whose views on current affairs can be seen at:


              Surely that can’t be you! So many of those comments are quite unChristian.

              With all best wishes for intelligent land-use,


              1. Wow… not me. 🙂 Most of the David Keddies of the world are less controversial. I assure you that I don’t own any guns and my wife would be horrified at the idea. I would be happy to provide character references from liberal activist close friends who can testify that I do not loathe them. 😉 I’m this David Keddie:


        2. Apartments are not valuable because David Keddie thinks they are valuable. They are valuable because they offer housing choice, increased affordability and the possibility of reducing traffic. It doesn’t matter what David Keddie wrote on another blog, the issue is way bigger than him or any single person. It’s the community that stands to profit from the benefits that apartments offer Princeton’s future, not David Keddie.

  10. “..While enrollment and employment at the university and in town has exploded in the past sixty years”

    Depends on the type of employment. Unless one works at the University, one would be otherwise employed in retail products and services.

  11. Although in theory I support “more apartment buildings” in Princeton, I absolutely do NOT support variances to allow such buildings to be higher than current zoning calls for, or to exempt them from appropriate parking with shade trees. Because in my experience, it is still not feasible for working people in Princeton to live carless. As long as that is the case (and believe me, I’ve tried it), we need the zoning for parking. Mr. Keddie has a history of advocating (on Facebook) for both higher than allowed buildings and exemption from parking. So be warned.

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