In the 1940s, Jake Craig wasn’t allowed to eat an ice cream cone inside a Nassau Street shop in Princeton or play with his friends in front of Nassau Hall at because of the color of his skin.
“I was not wanted on Nassau Street. I was not wanted at Princeton University. But on Witherspoon Street I was wanted and cared for by many other families,” the 85-year-old said Monday night as he recalled how Witherspoon Street was a bucolic, tree-lined promenade for blacks 75 years ago.
Craig and many other Princeton residents think the history of the oldest black neighborhood in New Jersey, a neighborhood that developed as a result of discrimination and segregation, should be preserved by creating a historic district in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.
“This historic district issue is not complicated. Witherspoon Street and the Witherspoon Street area deserve historic status — not tomorrow, but yesterday .” Craig said. “You will either do the best that you can so that this district becomes historic, or you will leave it in the hands of the greedy Gordon Gekkos of Princeton.”
In addition to preserving the history of the neighborhood, many residents hope a historic district designation will stabilize prices, slow down gentrification and deter developers from tearing down homes and building larger new ones that residents say are not compatible with the character of the area.
The Rev. Ed McEwen said many of his relatives have moved because they can’t afford to live in Princeton, especially in the aftermath of the property revaluation that more than doubled the taxes for many homeowners in the neighborhood. The only places many blacks can afford in Princeton now are affordable housing developments, he said.
“Blacks are being pushed out of Princeton. It’s really a disgrace,” he said. “The blacks are being moved to reservations on Bunn Drive and Redding Circle. We no longer can afford to live in the community we helped build, because you kicked us out and raised the taxes.”
More than three dozen people addressed the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission at a special public meeting on Monday night after a presentation by a consultant who recommended that the town create a historic district in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. More than 175 residents, developers, architects and officials attended the gathering.
While the majority of speakers were in favor of the district, several people raised concerns about being able to make changes to their properties if the historic district is created. Their questions generated sometimes heated exchanges with longtime residents during the almost five-hour meeting.
“Something needs to be done stop developers from taking down houses that can be saved,” said Sean Owen, who moved to Princeton last month. “But when it comes to each family home, you should not force it to be historically preserved. I bought my home with my own money. I pay the mortgage, taxes, and expenses. It is my right to do with my home what I wish. It is a fundamental right and this seems like a form of discrimination against my rights.”
Architect Joshua Zinder said the boundaries of the district seem arbitrary.
“Some specific structures are targeted, and I’m not sure why,” he said, noting that the Hilton building on Witherspoon Street is not included. “It seems like the district should be inclusive of all of buildings on that side of Witherspoon or none of them. I’m not sure why the boundary was drawn where it was.”
Zinder also said he is concerned that the guidelines for the district may create confusion.
“If the goal is to keep specific structures intact, I’m not sure the historic guidelines as discussed would be doing that,” he said. “There is the potential to create a lot of confusion within the approval process. Without a clear set of guidelines there will be greater confusion, and as a result you might undo exactly what you are trying to do.”
Resident Al Carnavale said he wants more information about the historic district designation’s impact on property values.
“I’m not sure why we need the historic district,” Carnavale said. “I did some research and from what I’ve read, values go up with such a designation. I’ll never go for it until I know the whole package. ”
Officials said while a historic district designation drives property values up in some communities, the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood is a different scenario. Officials think the designation will preserve the history of the neighborhood and maintain the existing scale of the homes in the community. Prices remain lower in neighborhoods where teardowns are harder to get approvals for because of the historic district designation, one commission member said.
Princeton Tax Assessor Neal Snyder said any time restrictions are placed on a property, the restrictions can limit what the property is worth to a buyer.
“I don’t have a glass ball in front of me. But your neighborhood is in high demand,” Snyder said. “Will restrictions decrease values? The revaluation was hard on your neighborhood. A lot of people came in to my office crying that they can’t afford the taxes…My two cents is something needs to be done at the legislative level to keep people in the neighborhood who’ve lived there all their lives. There should be a massive reduction for seniors.”
Snyder said he thinks the small lots in the neighborhood already make it impossible to build McMansions there. “Whether the historic district will help or not I don’t know,” he said. “In another couple of years we will find out (if the district is approved) and see if the sales have stabilized. A property that could have sold for $400,000 may only be worth $250,000. Some people will say `there goes my retirement.’ Who knows what will happen in the future.”
Some residents asked what kinds of approvals they would need to make improvements to their properties in a historic district.
Princeton Historic Preservation Officer Elizabeth Kim said every month, at least one or two homes are torn down in the neighborhood and that because of the teardowns, land values have gone up and taxes are skyrocketing in the neighborhood.
She said if a property owner wants to replace windows or doors, or make repairs, no approvals are needed. Residents can just email her office to make her aware of what kind of work is being done.
If residents what to change doors to a different style, they would pay a fee of $75 for an administrative approval of the change. Major changes that are visible from the right of way would require a more extensive review by the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission.
Resident John Heilner, who has worked on historic district issues in other parts of town, said the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood is an integral part of Princeton. Heilner said he does not think the historic district designation will drive prices down, because Princeton is a very desirable place to live. He thinks the move will stabilize prices though and prevent sudden spikes in prices.
Former Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore said a group is working to resurrect the Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation, which would raise money to help struggling homeowners in the neighborhood do routine home maintenance and make improvements to their homes.
Resident Shirley Satterfield said newcomers should learn about and respect the history of the neighborhood.
“I see people in the audience laughing, and people who don’t want the district. We’ve live in the neighborhood for seven or eight generations. If it were not for our people and our ancestors, you wouldn’t even be here. We washed your clothes, cooked, took care of your children in a segregated Princeton.”
Some residents said they feel the historic district is being shoved down their throats. One said he wants to see the town designate the Library Place area in the western section of town as a historic district too if the Witherspoon-Jackson district is approved.
The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission will hold a special meeting at 4 p.m. on Dec. 7 to decide whether to approve, modify, or reject the consultant’s recommendation to create the district. If the commission endorses the formation of a historic district, the recommendation will be forwarded to the Princeton Council. The council can then reject the commission’s recommendation or adopt an ordinance creating the district. The ordinance would be introduced early next year if the council decides to move forward with the historic district.