As a major axis framing the Princeton community; as a road connecting the community to the University and vice versa; as a street that puts the town’s history on view; and as a street supporting contemporary educational, municipal, recreational, arts, shopping, residential, healthcare, and employment activity within a highly variegated nine tenths of a mile; Witherspoon Street means a lot to a lot of people, from the communities that flank it to the broader Princeton community and beyond. The street’s character has changed over time, but the impending redevelopment of the University Hospital site and the large-scale turnover in the historic Witherspoon John community has sharpened local sensibilities. The prospect of further changes to Witherspoon’s character are welcomed by some but are unsettling and even suspicious to others.
On Monday evening, Planning Director Lee Solow described (warning: link is a 28 MB file. Relevant portions on pp 271-273) to the Princeton Municipality Council what kinds of buildings and uses are allowed under current zoning for properties along Witherspoon Street between Nassau Street and Valley Road. The zoning regulations in effect along Witherspoon are estimated to have been in place for 40 or more years, and township and borough zoning designations along Witherspoon were apparently not extensively coordinated.
The purpose of Monday’s briefing was to help the Council understand what kind of development would be allowed under the current zoning, and help Princeton prepare for any possible future development proposals along Witherspoon. Ideally, the Council would like to get ahead of any such proposals by setting ground rules in place that reflect contemporary community goals.
Members of the public also shared their thoughts at Monday’s meeting. The tone of public comment – predominantly from residents in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Witherspoon – was restrained but concerned. Views expressed tended to emphasize regret over changes to the character of the neighborhood in recent decades, and a desire to hold on to its surviving charm.
Zoning Designations at Issue
The Witherspoon corridor contains eight zoning designations. According to the staff briefing, these zone districts, with the exception of the new hospital zones (MRRO and R-O), have been in place for over 30 years. Descriptions of what’s allowed under each zoning designation are provided here (extensive zoning code—search on designations for details), and a few additional facts are provided below from Solow’s Monday presentation:
- CB: 900’ from Nassau to Wiggins, 28 properties
- R-4: 500’ from Paul Robeson Place to Quarry, 8 properties
- RB: 850’ from Quarry to Clay Street, 32 properties
- R-4A: 115’ facing Witherspoon, 1 property
- MRRO: 430’ along Witherspoon, the former hospital site, 1 property
- B-1: 1300’ along Witherspoon to Community Park School, 10 properties
- R-O: 150’ along Witherspoon as far north as Henry, 1 property with 2 buildings
- R-6: 950’ along Witherspoon, with 4 properties (including the Community Park School, Municipal Offices, Firehouse, and Board of Education)
Public Comments Made
Among the specific comments made by members of the public were suggestions to:
- Develop stronger urban design standards and/or a “form-based code”;
- Account for fiscal and school enrollment impacts of future development;
- Assure adequacy of road and sewer infrastructure
- Enable current residents of the neighborhood to remain;
- Move deliberately and not hastily;
- Reduce future allowable development density;
- Acknowledge explicitly aspects of the area that will not change (such as the library, the cemetery, the municipal and school buildings, etc)
- Preserve the area’s “village living” quality;
- Create a “cultural corridor” uniting the former township and boro
- Move forward in the correct order, by updating Master Plan first if needed; and
- Ensure that any zoning update incorporates updated community goals for historic preservation, design, sustainability, etc.
The immediate step following Monday’s meeting appears to be for planning staff to analyze the existing zoning along Witherspoon more thoroughly, and to report back on what could potentially be built “by right” in the existing zones, irrespective of more contemporary planning policy.
After that, the Council will decide on next steps, among which could be creation of a task force, creation of a committee, drafting of a vision statement, or development of a new zoning ordinance. Mayor Lempert was careful to advise that if an updated ordinance were to be considered, at least two meetings would be needed, and likely more, so big changes should not be expected in any short order.
Questions for Planet Princetonians
The discussion about Witherspoon’s future on Monday was generally procedural and technical. Besides Kip Cherry’s (in my opinion appropriate) exhortation to update planning goals and Councilmember Simon’s question to staff about (and I’m paraphrasing) “what other things we need to know about besides zoning,” there was not much reference to what benefits an updated set of zoning designations could bring to the Witherspoon-area community and to Princeton communities more broadly, or what other issues might be implicated, besides the benefits of preserving things generally as are.
For those who did not have the opportunity to attend Monday evening’s meeting, what thoughts do you have related to Witherspoon’s future?
- What would you speculate is the likely future of Witherspoon absent any zoning changes? Should a tear-down/rebuild dynamic be feared, as at least one councilmember asked?
- To Kip Cherry’s question, what updated community goals could or should an updated Witherspoon zoning ordinance aim to implement? Kip mentioned historic preservation, sustainability, and urban design standards, but what about:
- Preservation of existing communities
- Production of affordable housing
- Production of market-rate housing for a broader range of household incomes
- Providing opportunities for police, fire, school, and other municipal employees to live and work in town
- Progress on complete street goals, and increases in walking, biking, and transit
- Support for local small businesses?
- To Councilmember Simon’s question, are there other municipal issues that are implicated in a zoning update for the Witherspoon area?
- If current zoning allows more development density on lots than can be actually built because parking requirements effectively keep development density down, can you imagine a situation in which parking requirements would be lowered to allow more housing to be produced?
- If new design standards were adopted, what kinds of features would you want to see, and why? For example, porches to facilitate neighbor-to-neighbor conversations? Gables and architectural details? For the street, what about wider sidewalks? Bike lanes on the street?
- Is it reasonable to imagine Witherspoon from Wiggins to Nassau as a pedestrian-only zone?
- And finally, what would you recommend next steps to be?