Planet Princeton

Princeton Council Votes to Purchase Lytle Street Property (Updated)

31-33 Lytle St PrincetonThe Princeton Governing body voted unanimously Monday night to purchase a double lot on Lytle Street in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood and expand Mary Moss Park after reaching a compromise with a group that wants affordable housing on the site.

A porch that is considered an important historic feature of the house at the site, 31-33 Lytle Street, will also be preserved.

It is still unclear whether affordable housing will be built on the property, but affordable housing advocates and officials hope the town will be able to partner with Habitat for Humanity to build two affordable housing units on one of the lots.

Resident John Heilner called the compromise a triple win for the community.

“It will create additional affordable housing, allow for the expansion of Mary Moss Playground, and maintain the scale and streetscape with the replication of a key historical site in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood,” he said.

The property is owned by developer Roman Barsky, who originally planned to subdivide the property and build two homes at the site. Barsky will be paid up to $525,000 by the town for the property. Barsky paid $345,500 to purchase the property from the estate of Grover Tash, according to property tax records.

The town will borrow money to purchase the property. The portion of the property that will become a park will be purchased with open space funds and the housing would be paid for with affordable housing trust funds that were put aside for a project on Peck Place that fell through, Princeton Administrator Mark Dashield said.

Tom Caruso, executive director of Habitat for Humanity, attended the meeting. He said Habitat will raise money from local businesses and individuals to build two affordable housing units at the site. Habitat will select lower income owners for the homes after doing background and credit checks, and then issue mortgages with no interest. Buyers must put in 300 hours of work on the project, attend homeowner classes and pay $2,500 for closing costs.

Habitat for Humanity will need to work with an architect to develop plans that comply with Princeton zoning laws and then come up with a proposal for the two units. “A shovel won’t go in the ground until the money is raised to fund the project,” Caruso said.  A few residents stepped forward at the meeting to contribute funds.

Resident Kip Cherry said she is glad the porch and porch line of the house will be preserved because they are an important historic feature of the street.

“This proposal, although it is a comprise, is a good proposal,” she said. “Many residents hope the area will become a historic district.”

Resident and Princeton University professor Patricia Fernandez Kelly, who studies cities and segregation, said she supports the proposal.

“It will do a lot for affordability,” she said,  adding that Princeton has already become a golden ghetto for the rich. “The desire for luxury housing is forcing the more vulnerable to leave town,” she said. “This step can set an important example.”

Resident Hendricks Davis, who lives in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood, said more could be done in terms of affordable housing.

“A good solution is being presented tonight, and still don’t think it is the best solution. The town should consider the best and highest use and the redevelopment of both lots for affordable homes that would be for sale to low and moderate income families,” he said, adding that developing the whole site for affordable housing would make up for the loss of the Peck Place project.

“From a position of opportunity, this is an extraordinary opportunity for people in the neighborhood to develop home ownership opportunities,” he said. “The municipality body has the duty to pursue every opportunity to develop ratables. The town should purchase the entire property for affordable homes. Two units is better than none, but five is better than two.”

Resident and former Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore, who also lives in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood, noted that one promise of consolidation was the creation of advisory planning districts. Residents who were worried about losing their voices in a consolidated town were told not to fear, because the planning district structure would mean they would have a say about development in their neighborhoods. The governing body scrapped the idea of advisory planning districts after consolidation, saying it would be too hard to implement.

“Several residents who are not part of the neighborhood put forth the proposal for the Lytle Street property,” Moore said. “It  does concern me that we don’t have the planning districts.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • John H

    The “Lytle St Group” consisted of seven residents of the WJ neighborhood, and three non-residents. Everyone favored more affordable housing, in fact an early proposal had 5-6 units. One week before the June 8 Council meeting, it became clear that the Group’s earlier proposals would not work politically or financially. It’s true that the non-residents then developed the compromise plan in consultation with Habitat for Humanity. This plan was presented to the full Lytle St Group including WJ residents a few days later. All who were present again lamented the fact that we could not achieve more affordable housing, but agreed that with only three days to go before the Council meeting, the compromise plan was the best course of action.

  • John H

    The portion of the property to expand the playground will be paid with Princeton Open Space funds, matched by Mercer County’s Open Space Fund. Yes, it comes from our open space taxes, but it will not cause the main Princeton municipal tax to increase at all. The funds to buy the property under the house, and build the house, will come from our Affordable Housing Trust Fund which developers, not taxpayers, pay into; plus Habitat’s fundraising campaign.

  • John H

    It would be a shame to build only one unit instead of two. Once the land is paid for, maximize its utility by building two units. Put another way, two will reduce the total cost per unit.
    Many people park on the street overnight on Lytle, around the corner on Clay St. and possibly on John St also. A variance for this can be obtained. Parking should not prevent a second unit of badly needed affordable housing to be added to Princeton’s housing stock in such a great location.
    I believe Mr. Barsky purchased the property in late 2013 or early 2014.

  • Y. Moore

    To be clear, my comments referenced “several” non-residents of the Witherspoon Jackson (WJ) neighborhood as proponents of a proposal submitted by the Lytle St. Group.
    While in support of affordable housing, many WJ residents, as well as those who were members of that group, did not support the proposal to expand the playground. The neighborhood has never been consulted as to what they would like to see happen on the playground (if funds were available) to implement operations, management, or any structural changes.
    The reality is that there is a net zero effect to the availability of affordable housing derived from a site which, despite its antiquity, already provided for two very affordable units of housing. What the neighborhood has been asking for is housing affordable to the needs of many current residents. COAH affordability criteria does not meet that need.
    I ask that officials respect the neighborhood’s desires absent the advisory council structure. I expect officials to consider the full cost and benefit impact of their decisions before accepting funds that require Princeton to make a major capital expenditure.
    Y. Moore

  • Alexi Assmus

    The director of Habitat for Humanity said one to two units of affordable — and Councilman Miller cautioned that we not raise expectations that two will be built. I believe one concern is that the parking requirement may make it difficult to build two units.
    PP do you know when Barksy purchased the property?

  • Community Conscience

    The difference is that Council is using taxpayer money – ie, they don’t care what it costs.

  • Resident

    Given the initial plan to use the entire property to expand the park, I would be interested in knowing if the town considered buying it before Mr. Barsky purchased it. I’m in favor of the purchase, but we’re obviously paying a pretty sizable developer’s premium. Can someone explain?

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