Planet Princeton

Letters: Speak Out to Retain Scale, Provide Affordable Housing in Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood

Over the past two months, a group of residents has sought a compromise solution for 31-33 Lytle Street that would retain the porch, facade, character and scale of its 1870’s house, provide two units of badly needed affordable housing, and still expand Mary Moss Playground, which has occupied the corner of Lytle and John Streets for about 80 years.

We are now very close to a solution involving a nationally renowned builder of low-cost housing. The projected economics of this project will provide Princeton with two units of affordable housing at a cost considerably lower than what the Town has paid over the last 3-4 years.

Twenty to 25 years ago it was believed that there should not be too much affordable housing concentrated in the Witherspoon-Jackson area. Now the neighborhood has changed, with a real diversity of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic class. Every study, as well as common sense, says that this is a great benefit for low-income families and their children. The vast majority of neighborhood residents who have spoken at two Princeton Council meetings, a special session on this subject, and last Saturday’s meeting of the Witherspoon-Jackson Association have spoken strongly in favor of additional affordable housing in their area. Lytle Street is just a short walk from jobs in downtown Princeton; elementary, middle and high schools; the library; and the Arts Council.

So far, the Princeton Council has not proactively picked up on this idea, but rather proposed expanding Mary Moss Park across the whole property – to which most neighborhood residents are strongly opposed. Community Park with playground equipment, both large and toddler pools is just a few blocks north; there is a small playground behind the YMCA and Dorothea’s House a few blocks south; and the open space owned by the University leading to Stanworth is even closer.

If you care about these issues please come out and speak for 2-3 minutes at the Princeton Council meeting on Monday June 8, at 7 pm. This will be our last chance to make the best use of 31-33 Lytle Street, a scarce piece of land in downtown Princeton.

John Heilner

Community Contributor

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  • Alexi Assmus

    Princeton’s old Jackson-Witherspoon, Jefferson-Moore, and
    Tree Street neighborhoods are already at smart growth densities (8-22
    units/acre). These town neighborhoods were built before people used cars
    extensively. The neighborhoods used to support a trolley line along
    Witherspoon. If people used public transit instead of cars, these neighborhoods
    would support public transit again. The neighborhoods that may need more
    density to support public transit (I’m not an expert) are the suburban
    neighborhoods at 1-2 units/acre and the country neighborhoods where plots are
    beautiful and large. Philadelphia’s
    Science Museum climate change exhibit points out that both towns and cities are
    sustainable, that the challenge is with suburban neighborhoods. We can
    maintain our town-like environment if we wish and be sustainable as long as we
    cut back on our car use.

    As one who has been involved in working on neighborhood friendly re/development,
    and who believes that it should be driven from the neighborhood up, not
    top down from the Planning Board or Council, I don’t want to say what the
    suburban neighborhoods should do. Perhaps a denser town neighborhood center
    with beautiful apartments, daily shopping, and public transit? Walkable cities have daily shopping streets in each neighborhood.

    Another point to consider is that Princeton’s downtown with daily
    shopping is at the shopping center — the main grocery store, hardware store,
    a drug store, … That is also where the doctor’s offices are — and it is
    near elementary schools that are less full than CP, I believe. When schools have open seats in their
    classrooms, increasing the number of school children is not nearly as expensive
    (the marginal cost) as when they are full or crowded as at the JW middle school
    and the high school. The Princeton
    Shopping center area may be a good option to consider when the town zones for
    new housing..

    Keep in mind that the school BUDGET is capped at 2% a year. This means
    that even if the town builds new housing —
    increasing its population and its school age children — , the school
    does not get new tax revenues above the 2% increase in budget (which basically
    pays for inflation but not for increasing numbers of students). Tax ratables
    increase but the municipalities and schools cannot increase the tax levy beyond
    the 2% cap. Before this cap went in,
    the Princeton District used to increase its budget 3-4% a year. The school
    district can apply for waivers for increased student enrollment. They have done
    this recently, for the first time I believe; however the waivers do not pay the
    total cost of new schoolchildren. So the effect of increasing numbers of school
    children is less money to spend on each child.

    Core class sizes (math, English, history, …) in the middle and high school are bigger than what I was told they would be when we entered the District — and other cuts are being made (the English and Social Studies Supervisor for 9-12 is now one person instead of two).

    The new ratables may reduce people’s taxes — as Governor
    Christie hopes — but with the 2% cap on school and municipal budgets, the
    schools and the town’s public services lose out as the population of the town
    grows. There are more kids and people
    but not more tax revenue to pay to educate them and provide public services.

    Prop 13 with its cut in California education funds has
    seriously harmed California schools. With a 2% budget cap on NJ schools (and on
    the municipal budget), this may not be the time for the town to grow because
    the municipality and the schools cannot levy tax on the new tax ratables. Of course, a stable population is sustainable
    — it’s not clear a growth economy is.

    The 2% state mandated caps on school and municipal
    budgets are a way to defund government services (municipal and public
    education) and to decrease individual taxes.

  • SFB

    It sounds like the plan is worth further examination for sure. If the Affordable Housing Trust Fund can kick in enough money, then it could work. The value of the land is going to be $240K and the improvements will probably run just as much, so it’s definitely a chunk of change. I’d be wary about relying on ‘fundraising’, the Community Park Pool was supposed to be part paid for by community donations, and the taxpayer ended up picking most of that up. The library is looking for $1.5 million or something from ‘fundraising’, and PFARS are looking for even more for their new HQ. That’s a lot of fundraising going on in a town of 30,000 people.

  • John H

    We local taxpayers will not be on the hook for any of this. The Town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund has enough to make a contribution to the project, and fundraising will provide the rest. The cost per unit to the Aff Housing Trust Fund will be far lower than what it has paid for comparable units the last three years.

    Come to the Council meeting on Monday night at 7 pm, learn more, and speak up with your views on whether the Town needs more affordable housing!

  • John H

    All good points…..the Town already has $300,000 of open space funds committed to the expansion of MMP. An ordinance was passed on this about one month ago. The County open space matching funds (another $300,000) will be in addition to the town’s. You’re right that open space funds cannot be used for affordable housing, so the total of $600,000 will be reduced by the footprint of the new house and its setback from Lytle St – about 40% of the whole property. MMP would be expanded onto the closest portion of the 31-33 Lytle lot, and the new house would sit furthest from MMP, so not that strange a configuration for the Playground.

  • Resident

    Good points/questions. I also wonder if it’s feasible to salvage the facade and porch and incorporate it into a building on #31.

  • SFB

    This could potentially work too. We would (1) get the town to buy the property, using some unidentified municipal funds, possibly an emergency bond. (2) subdivide the lot into a future park and a future house. (3) apply the County grants to reimburse the town for the land that will become future MMP. (4) Redevelop the house, using unidentified capital.
    However there are several risks:
    – It’s not clear that the town has the money to buy the lot right now, or that the County grants permit purchasing a lot that is intended for future affordable housing. Hence the logistics of buying the house from the current owner are potentially problematic. The municipal attoreny might be able to advise.
    – The new MMP would be a weird shape, because the lot that contains the house (#33) is between the existing MMP and the undeveloped lot (#31). Presumably there would be a narrow corridor of land connecting the existing MMP and the new addition. That is potentially acceptable, but a bit weird. The park would also become the ‘back yard’ of the new house.
    – the source of the capital to redevelop the structure at #33 is vague. The local taxpayer could quite easily end up on the hook for an undetermined sum. Who is the ‘nationally renowned builder’, and how much capital are they prepared to put in?

  • John H

    The old house would not be rehabbed, but key features of its porch and roof line would be salvaged and used on the front of a new structure. This reduces the project cost considerably. The Town would pay much less for these two units than it has for affordable housing over the past three years. It could generate two COAH credits, yet to be determined. Each unit will be three bedrooms – so 4-5 people in each. There are two County grants – one for “open space” and one for improvement of Mary Moss Playground (The “Mercer at Play” fund.) Both would still be applicable and obtainable, since MMP would be expanded but not across the entire 31-33 Lytle property, and the Playground would be improved. The open space money, while not as much as originally envisioned, would pay for much of the property acquisition cost.

  • Taxpayer

    Palmer Square would have been ideal for that. Instead, we got multi-million dollar townhouses and flats. What a wasted opportunity.

  • Douglas Rubin

    If you care about a transit-friendly community, and offering owners of their property full value, it would be logical to argue for GREATER density in neighborhoods within walking distance of jobs and shopping.

  • SFB

    Well that is at least an idea. I doubt the university would be in a huge rush to go for it, but at least you have come up with a solution that is financially viable.

  • resident

    The university should buy it, since they are oozing with money and also have legions of attorneys to figure out how it could become some sort of write off type thing, they could organize a bunch of students, alums and profs to get “involved” with it (sort of like they did with the Habitat duplex project on Leigh years back), use it as some nice do-gooder and town/gown PR for themselves and then give it back to the town with the stip that its for affordable.

  • SFB

    I would like to see this house rehabilitated, and I like affordable housing, but the simple fact is that the guy who owns it wants $600K for it (an absurd price for a property that is in terrible condition). The town doesn’t have the $600K. It was never budgeted for. The town does have ‘green acres’ money from Mercer County, which could be used to buy the site and extend Mary Moss Park. But that money must be spent on parks, not affordable housing. I’m not enthusiastic at all about expanding the park, but the alternative is that the house is going to get demolished and replaced with new townhouses. I’d support another plan, but somebody has to tell me where the $600K to buy the house is going to come from.

  • Resident

    Sounds like an interesting proposal. A few questions for whomever may know: (1) How much money would this proposal require from the town? (2) How many COAH credits would it generate? (3) How many people would each unit be able to house? (4) Would it be ADA compliant? (5) What would happen to the money from the old county recreation grant that is now earmarked for the MMP expansion?

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