Letters: Time for Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District Has Come

To the Editor:

Designation of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as a historic district needs to happen. Time is of the essence, as we know there are many steps in this process since properties are being purchased and houses torn down as we speak. There are 19 other historic districts in Princeton . With the Witherspoon-Jackson community’s unique and significant history there should be no question.

We all understand the importance of the structures that define the living and lived history of the Witherspoon-Jackson community. But it’s not individual structures alone. It’s their interlinkage with people and culture. The Wise Report states that their survey “found the neighborhood to be a cohesive and intact expression of Princeton’s largest African-American community, whose appearance and setting is a result of years of social, economic and educational disparity brought about by discrimination and segregation. The buildings and streetscape here, opposed to elsewhere in Princeton, tell this story; the district designation should help preserve it” (Wise, p. 1). Everyone should note: still “cohesive and intact.”

The Wise report notes one of the chief reasons for that cohesion: “One prevalent feature found throughout the community were front porches, most of which are not enclosed. The massing of houses, though close to most sidewalks, is by default scaled to the community streetscapes” (Wise, p. 24). The linkage between architecture and people is evident: the many porches the architectural connection, out-doors, between the buildings and the people on the street. The closeness of the porches to the street has helped all of us survive and maintain our community throughout the decades.

The Report indicates that systemic patterns of segregation created an area based on race, ethnicity and economics. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was not just their neighborhood of choice; it was set apart for them — their only choice. African-American settlers in this community have always been here to serve wealthy Princetonians and Princeton University. To dismiss the neighborhood’s character and relationship to the history of Princeton would also be inaccurate.

Over time, as opportunity grew, some Italian and Irish families arrived — and then were able and allowed to move on to other neighborhoods in Princeton (Wise, p. 54). Some Italian families still remain (census graphs in the Wise Report show this evolution). Witherspoon-Jackson has always been a neighborhood of inclusion, a community of many languages where all have been welcome. Its early historic make-up was African American — then Irish and Italian.

The African American community was not afforded similar opportunities. But there was no bitterness. Instead and largely due to discriminatory practices and common necessity the neighborhood established many successful businesses, schools, and churches, and always with a spirit of welcome and neighborliness.

Princeton Council must continue to highlight Princeton as a town of inclusion. It should designate the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood a historic district, and acknowledge that this community’s past represents a significant part of the town’s history. Princeton Council must recognize Princeton’s significance in the state, national, and international mind.

Thomas Parker
Leigh Ave


  1. The key here is “Witherspoon-Jackson has always been a neighborhood of inclusion”. If historic designation goes through as currently envisaged, a large area of middle-class housing will be subject to the costly requirements of conforming to the Commissions’ standards. I don’t support historic designation because it will drive up costs and speed exclusion of lower-income residents.

    1. The Chair and Executive Director of the Historic Preservation Commission have repeatedly stated at public meetings that the HPC will be very flexible in administering this historic district, should it be designated. They will work with homeowners to find less costly materials as necessary. Since most of the homes were clad in aluminum or vinyl siding long ago, this will be permitted. Houses can be painted any color you like, as long as they were painted before.

      Historic designation (HD) will help lower income residents, including renters, stay in their homes by maintaining the small scale of the houses. Without HD, much larger homes will be built and lower income residents will be forced out.

      1. Also, if the look of the house from the street is not changed during maintenance or renovation, the homeowner need not even apply to the HPC.

        1. If you wanted to fit energy-saving solar panels on the roof, that would not be permitted, however. And if you wanted to replace worn-out wood-framed windows with better-insulated PVC windows, that would require the permission of the HPC, which may or may not be forthcoming. In effect, you’ve signed over permission to do work on your house to a committee of unelected officials. Maybe they’re a great bunch of people, but maybe they have funny ideas about what your house ought to look like. With historic designation, their opinion – not yours – carries the force of law.

          1. I know someone in a historic district who had to remove all their new windows because they didn’t meet the approval of the HPC. That was $30,000 wasted. To complain the HPC won’t cause problems is to ignore the experiences of current owners in a HPC.

            1. I believe I know the case you’re talking about, and think it was a lower figure. $30,000 is awfully high for just the windows you can see from the street. But that’s not the point. The new windows changed the look of the house from the street. Didn’t even tell the HPC ahead of time. Just went ahead and did it, completely ignoring the fact that they live in an historic district. As I heard it, one of the Town’s building inspectors was driving by and saw the work when it was almost completed. Had the homeowner consulted with the HPC ahead of the work being done, the HPC would have helped him/her find a cost effective replacement window that maintained the look of the house.

              1. It seems as though that homeowner had their window situation under control. Perhaps they didn’t want to add the extra cost (in dollars, time, and aggravation) required to have a committee weigh in on what was going on at their own home. Perhaps they felt that, since they were paying for the cost of the home, its taxes, its maintenance needs, and now its upgrade, they should decide on the windows. After all, its a free country, unless you live in a Historic District.
                We have friends in Princeton who had a neighbor’s tree crush their simple two-car garage. It was not hard to find a contractor to rebuild it. It was not hard to get plans for a simple two-car garage. But the necessary back-and-forth with the HPC made the process of obtaining approval to replace an existing, but now crushed, two-car garage with another simple two-car garage take over a year. That is over a year with a listing garage and a storage container in the front yard (to hold all of its former contents), so that a committee of people, who were not paying the bill or living with the inconvenience, could make sure that the window in the eaves and the light fixture on the front were just to their liking.
                Historic Districts control how things look. They don’t control who lives inside. Making the W-J neighborhood a historic district cannot guarantee the preservation of the true character of the neighborhood, only its façade; but it does guarantee an additional layer of bureaucracy which will add money, time, and aggravation to every project. It also guarantees that the W-J neighborhood will be held up as a reason why every other neighborhood currently in the HPC’s sights as a future Historic District should acquiesce to being placed under the HPC’s control. I can hear them now–“If the W-J neighborhood can bear this burden, then why should any other neighborhood have the right to escape it.”
                Beware of HPC members bearing gifts. This “honor” really is a Trojan horse.

                1. In reading your post you say “we have friends in Princeton”…seems like and I could be wrong, that you do not live in Princeton…if that is the case…I strongly suggest you spend your time and energy on issues where you do live, and leave issues of W/J to the people who live there.

                  1. Thanks for your advice, but I live in Princeton.
                    Nonetheless, sometimes information and opinions from outside our Princeton bubble can be useful and enlightening. Do you make it your business in this forum to scare off all outsiders or only the ones you disagree with?

                2. The NJ courts have ruled time and again that when historic districts are created in conformance with the State Municipal Land Use Law, they are perfectly legal and create value for the community as a whole. In the current case that would be the W-J community as well as the Town of Princeton.

                  Similar to any other zoning regulation, an historic district trades off a tiny bit of what some believe to be sacred “property rights” in favor of creating added value for neighbors and for the community as a whole.

                  There will always be some disagreement on what this balance should be.

                  1. The NJ courts may have ruled that historic distrcts are legal but the question of whether they create value is not a legal matter. Like many things that are lawful (e.g. corporate free speech), it is very debatable that historic districts create value. In certain cases, they no doubt protect priceless community treasures. In others, they serve mainly to create an aesthetic that is preferred by one group. We know that historic designation has an inflationary effect on property prices, so people with more money clearly consider historic districts to be valuable. On the other hand, people with less money are then excluded through gentrification, so there are clear winners and losers and the ‘value’ is not shared evenly. The town should give a polite ‘no thank you’ to the historic designation proposal. It may be based on good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

      2. The Historic Preservation Commission has made no effort to estimate the extra costs to homeowners from the requirements of historic preservation, and has constantly tried to focus on anything else. The talk of ‘flexibility’ shows that there is no intention to apply historic standards consistently. That’s not right. If historic preservation is worth doing, standards should be applied uniformly, regardless of who is making the request. Instead, we have a situation where the Commission are pretending that historic designation will achieve a bunch of amazing outcomes – without any cost to existing property owners! Local residents are not chumps. They know that everything comes with a cost. In practice, additional maintenance costs to conform with historic preservation have been estimated as an average of an extra 10-20% – applied to the only neighborhood in Princeton with a significant number of middle-class residents.

        1. I would like to know where your “extra 10-20% additional maintenance costs” comes from. It’s easy to throw out a figure like this without factual backup. True maintenance can be done without HPC review.

      3. How will lower income residents be forced out by other people building larger homes? There doesn’t seem to be a connection.

      4. “HPC will be very flexible in administering this historic district, should it be designated.” I thought that the HPC’s duty was to be fair and impartial. Historic District rules have to be administered consistently across all of Princeton’s Historic Districts. Just as the HPC should not choose to be more flexible with their friends or co-workers requests, they cannot choose to be more “flexible” in one district and less flexible in another. The HPC’s decisions are supposed to be based on clear guidelines so that any homeowner can read those guidelines and understand what they reasonably can and cannot do with their home. Decisions by the HPC are not supposed to vary depending on who is asking or who is deciding or what kind of mood the committee is in that day. Allowing special circumstances and dispensations to some and not to others will eventually open Princeton up to a lawsuit that it will surely deserve. No homeowner should expect any more flexibility than is stated in the written guidelines. For anyone to promise more flexibility than that is both disingenuous and misleading.

        1. You are absolutely right. No other HD in Princeton is saddled with guidelines above and or beyond that which exists in the HP ordinance and there should be no additional guidelines one way or another for Witherspoon/Jackson. At the same time, with regard to repairs or renovations, the modest homes that provide the “streetscape” are not million dollar mansions and will not cost millions to renovate, restore, or rehabilitate when owners choose to do so. What people are not talking about but need to keep in mind is the damage that was done through the property revaluation 2010. It wasn’t the homes that caused the discriminatory increase in taxes it was the LAND the homes sit on, making the neighborhood vulnerable to developers and development…yet another assault and major financial impact on homeowners who have been there the longest. You talk about special circumstances and dispensations to some…yeah right…tell me what were the “special circumstances” that caused W/J to get slammed by the revaluation while most other neighborhoods in Princeton either stayed the same or were devalued. Never mind…I already know!

    2. Status quo is driving up costs and speeding exclusion of lower-income home owners. If the neighborhood is not protected in some manner from no-holds-barred development, there will be no neighborhood here as we know it. We are not talking about preserving intricate medieval ornamentation here, but the basic environmental culture of the neighborhood (porches, etc) that supported it as its own community within a community, and continues to support connected neighbors. The risk of increased cost burden to the traditional and original residents by a historic designation is not more than the risk of increased cost burden (and the additional risk of creating pressure to leave the neighborhood),by simply letting any developer or property flipper to buy in to make maximum dollar with no account for the tenor and history of the neighborhood.

      1. You are correct that costs are rising, but the solution to that is not to add extra costs onto local residents. They are struggling to hold on already. And historic preservation will not scare off developers. We are already seeing letters in the local press boasting about how tax credits are available for investors who want to buy into historic-designated neighborhoods. If historic designation is implemented, I expect a surge in boutique renovations of neighborhood homes for outside buyers. This is exactly what has happened in residential areas of New York and Philadelphia, where homes in historic-designated neighborhoods see price increases relative to equivalent structures of 15-20%. What I’m talking about is gentrification on steroids. Historic preservation might keep the buildings looking the same, but the people living in those buildings will be very different. There is still a significant low-income population in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. Let’s not put those people at risk.

        1. I believe that the resident-owners in this neighborhood should have more weight in this decision (preferably with some weight to how long the resident-owner has lived here if possible). Those who don’t have any property connection to the neighborhood or who own but just rent out properties and don’t live here should not have as much say in this decision. While I will not say that every resident 100% agrees, I do hear more opinions against historic designation from those who don’t live here and those who have bought properties in the neighborhood within the last ten years or less with a rental/flip for-profit motive.

          1. Or…we could just work something out that is acceptable to everybody in the neighborhood, instead of trying to designate some owners/residents as second-class citizens.

          2. The idea that long-term residents should have more influence may be well-intended, but it quickly gives rise to the anti-immigrant politics we see.

            If you want to bias it towards individual property owners over companies, that may be legal and fine. But all individual property owners should have the same rights.

        2. If historic designation won’t scare off developers, why is it the people who oppose this are the developers and landlords? Clearly they fear it will halt or slow down their ability to cash in on the neighborhood.

          1. Opposition at the last meeting came mostly from homeowners, so I don’t understand your question. Lots of different people oppose historic designation for lots of different reasons.

      2. Thank you for so eloquently framing why an historical designation is needed…you have perfectly identified the important issues and implications of non compliance and runaway development by runaway developers…THANK YOU!

      3. The answer may lie in creating a “conservation district”. This is less stringent than historic preservation. The homeowners pick a few keys details of the homes worthy of preservation or replication, such as: porches, sloped roof pitch, & maximum height. Then, new homes must “fit in” with the old with these details. A conservation district provides the best of both worlds. It allows people to preserve their homes & have a plaque from the the historic society AND it keeps new projects from wrecking the look & feel of the neighborhood. Acknowledging context is important & the conservation district allows that without nagging details & annoying fees. This neighborhood needs a homeowners meeting dedicated to arriving at a consensus on the details that matter. What do they want their neighborhood to be? No time like the present for more discussion folks.

      4. To add to LifeLongPrincetonian’s thought……. one risk of not creating an historic district is that when a much larger house or other structure is built on a small lot, the total assessed value (both land and building) of that lot increases substantially. Then when the next revaluation is done for tax purposes, the land portion of the assessment on surrounding properties goes up even if the building has not changed at all. Higher assessment = higher tax.

        1. If people are concerned about rising tax assessments, they should run away from historic designation, because it is known to lead to long-term *increases* in property values of 15-20% relative to properties in other areas. (I’m happy to cite the studies.) As for land values going up in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, it is happening because the neighborhood is close to town and people increasingly value homes that are close to amenities. There are also no other neighborhoods in Princeton with housing that is within the reach of middle-class people, which means that the houses are in high demand. Blaming new construction is tempting, because we all like an easy scapegoat, but it is erroneous and risks making the situation worse.

  2. If I was a property owner in this neighborhood, I would be very fearful of one more “helpful” government agency restricting how I might be able to maintain or augment the value of my home.

    Princeton housing is very dear . . . the market has made it so, given how wonderful our community is. The proximity of these neighborhoods to downtown has made these housing units even more valuable in recent years. And yes, pctg increases in housing values here have been higher than the pctg increases of homes along Drake Rd and PrettyBrook. Not sure why that is bad.

    Historical designation will limit the ability to create more/better housing units on the same land space, and attempt to freeze housing values where they are. So much for trying to use appreciating home values as a way to save for retirement.

    And good luck with the unintended consequences of trying to force markets to do what you think they should.

    1. If someone wants to sell their small home there will be plenty of private buyers who will be able to fix up the interior any way they choose, and build an addition out the back for more space if they wish – all without review by the Historic Preservation Commission. This will permit retirees to realize a good, appreciated price for their property if they wish to sell.

    2. What needs to be preserved is the rich history and contributions of the American Immigrant Community as it relates to Princeton…to some it is not maximizing home values but recognizing and acknowledging history through the people that made it…nobody is saying that increasing property values are a bad thing…what we are saying is that combined with the impact of being historically designated will protect the streetscape and the people who still live in generational homes?. The percentage increases in W/J are greater than Drake Rd. and Pretty Brook is probably the best reason why an HD is needed….thanks for making the case!

  3. If most concern is from current elderly owners wouldn’t you accomplish the same thing w/o negative impact on current elderly if homeowners were given a tax break to ensure that escalating values didn’t force them out? Freeze or manage increase for elderly owners (needs definition) until they no longer inhabit the house.

    1. There is a tax break for seniors, but it doesn’t keep up with the needs of our Council, County & school system.

  4. @LifeLongPrincetonian @ilpapa16:disqus

    I strongly agree with your concern that “Status quo is driving up costs and speeding exclusion of lower-income home owners.”

    I respectfully disagree that designating the area a historic district will meaningfully alter the status quo, and I agree with others that it will impose a burden on district landowners, both newcomers AND those who’ve lived in the District for a long time.

    Rather than limiting opportunities for owners of small homes to alter their properties, it should be easier to provide housing that’s affordable to a full range of incomes — accessory units, granny flats, small-lot development, micro-houses, small units in buildings with no parking (obviously, in central, walkable, transit-accessible places), etc.

    Again, I strongly agree with your concern that too many people of modest means are excluded from our community because there aren’t enough housing opportunities here — and as a result can’t live near their families, their jobs, their school, their children’s schools, etc. I just disagree that establishing a historic district will meaningfully address this problem.

    1. Do the math. The number of student housing units & small dwelings within the boundaries of our small, suburban town are enormous. There are rooms, flats, & apartments for rent in our Universtiy, PTS, IAS, & restaurant filled town for students & our entry level workforce. Princeton also has an impressive & growing affordable housing system. Housing here is costly because of factors beyond inventory. Since you have an obsession with them, Nat, weird “micro” units without parking should be built right next to your house. Buses to move their deprived residents can stop right in front of your porch all day, everyday, since you think buses are hip & smart cars aren’t. Giving people a bin to live in & a bus ticket is slavemaster planning, not master planning. Intentionally placing people in poverty, in a work sleep cycle for service, is an unhealthy, inhumane concept that has no place in Princeton (although grad students are locked into all the time, with the promise of a future) Your ideas for W-J are exactly why W-J property owners are the only people who should decide what happens in their hood. Privileged Princetonians have been vocal about the future of W-J, but those with privilege who feel it is the best place for microunits because the wealthy need “service workers” nearby to be at their beck & call, shouldn’t be planning the future. I feel it is actually BETTER for people in small homes here to take in boarders for income, to offset our horribly mismanaged public purse, as the most moneyed school system, inept county, & unconsolidated local government demand more. This will help homeowners stay in place & give those needing convenience the option to live with greenery, space, & parking access. Too many new complexes are built without adequate parking & beauty in the US, further impairing the movement, ease of opportunities, & happiness of humans there. It is inappropriate to intentionally set out to lock people into the life of deprivation that you envision. It is inappropriate to turn a beautiful suburb into an urban prison because the wealthy have “needs”.

    2. I agree with you Nat, especially because I know you practice what you preach (I have seen you walking from the bus stop!).

      In my neighborhood, a medium-distance walk up/down/up Witherspoon into town, more than a few homeowners have remodeled, occasionally changing the exteriors of their homes (God forbid!), to create an extra rental unit.

      This is one way to create affordable housing, close-ish to town, without the need to clear more land or wait for government funds and policies to align. I am not sure if H.D. would allow this kind of improvement.

  5. Many of the comments here seem patronizing to me, written by people who do not live in the W-D neighborhood talking about what’s best for the residents of the W-J neighborhood (and be clear I mean live in the neighborhood, not property owners who own properties bought in the last 5 years or so for rental and investment income and who don’t and haven’t lived in the neighborhood). The decision about HD should be primarily made by the residents of the W-J neighborhood. It may be important to such residents to have such designation and preservation even if it does cost them a little more to do so. (And its not entirely clear that it will, the design elements in the neighborhood are not particularly expensive to maintain, and include smallness, porches, and close-togetherness, and lets assume homeowners might want to maintain their homes as they have lived in them anyway. Fixing the “historic” porch to most is really the same as just fixing the porch. We are not talking about the historic elements on Bayard lane here). While many residents of the neighborhood may be on the same political “side” that supports or benefits from neighborhood density generally, that doesn’t mean that they don’t want their own already densely populated neighborhood made any more denser by development any more than any of the commenters here want densifying structures built by developers next door to their homes in their neighborhoods. The W-J neighborhood today has a mix of new residents and old, and many of the old residents would like the particular history of this neighborhood, and how it served as a community and a safe haven for those who were discriminated against and pushed out of other places, preserved as is manifest in the structures in the neighborhood. And a fair number of newcomers to the neighborhood came here understanding the W-J history and willing and eager to respect it as new residents of the neighborhood. This neighborhood supports four traditionally Black churches which still are in operation, but the neighborhood has lost a historical Black-woman owned business on Leigh Avenue and has lost some establishments that served African-Americans when other establishments wouldn’t to developers and those profiting from Princeton’s real estate midas touch. I like to think of the preservation of this neighborhood like those four churches. No one is saying that those churches should close their doors to those who don’t look like the original, segregated congregations, all are welcome to worship. But lets keep the history and the structures of W-J alive, lest we forget both the bad of such discrimination and segregation and the “good” of the neighborliness, and community connection and community pride that emerged in this neighborhood. The decision to HD is a decision in and of itself for those who live here, and not to be conflated with notions of whether Princeton needs more density by those who don’t live in W-J, and/or whether someone else should decide if the “cost” of HD is worth it to those who live there. I suggest that commenters who don’t live in W-J figure out how to actualize their urban planning values in their own neighborhoods and not try to make a “cost/benefit” analysis on behalf of others.

    1. Of course the views of neighborhood residents merit special consideration.

      And of course it’s reasonable to be suspicious of people who try to get others to do “good” without being in the same boat themselves.

      But just because some commenters might not live in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood doesn’t mean their views have no weight.

      The reason towns have planners is that people know there are public implications from private building decisions, and that’s true on the lot level and on the neighborhood level.

      And consequently we allow our governments to limit us in some respects, or allow things we might not individually like, so that the results of our private actions aren’t negative for the community as a whole.

      You may feel that putting the brakes on all change in the W-J neighborhood is right and good for you. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s right and good for everyone.

      There are many who are excluded from our community today who can’t benefit from the accessibility and affordability that central locations in town offer. These include teachers, day laborers, service employees, police, fire fighters, graduate students, children of town residents, etc.

      Erecting barriers that make it harder to accommodate those excluded from our community has negative effects.

      All I’m saying is — just as outsiders should acknowledge the potential effects of change on neighborhood residents — the needs of others is a component of the equation, too, and one thing needs to be balanced with the other.

    2. Couldn’t agree with you more, LifeLongPrincetonian…and I don’t live in your hood. I respect the right of every person who has invested their money & lives in your hood to determine its future. Privileged people like Nat abound in this town. They have a new urban plan for your hood & feel entitled to push it. They’re not acknowledging that TODAY PU plans to build 500 “micro units” without parking for students & TAs, 23 apartments without adequate parking are being built next to the post office, Avalon Bay units are under construction, a group home is being refurbished for occupancy, expansion of our affordable housing plan is in the works, Merwick Stanworth is being finished & more. Nearly 1000 new units in the works means more change is coming to Princeton. All these units will be occupied with new residents (mostly low or no income). We all know it, we all accept it, we even applaud it. What’s nice is those units are interspersed throughout Princeton. Really hope you & your neighbors do what you want with your hood & disregard those who have other agendas for your space in this world…because you are the only people who have earned that right. Nat is getting his dream of plenty of micro units without parking (just not exactly where he wanted them). You should get what you want to!

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