Several residents asked the Princeton Council Monday night to change the zoning for the Butler Tract, a 36-acre property owned by Princeton University, from educational zoning to residential zoning.
The Butler Tract, which is located just off South Harrison Street was previously used for graduate student housing. The demolition of the housing is almost complete. Princeton University representatives have said the school does not have plans for the site yet, but that it will likely be used for housing.
“Many local residents are concerned about possible future construction,” resident Sally Goldfarb said. “It is one of the largest tracts of available land in Princeton…the site sits in the midst of a quiet residential area.”
The property is zoned for educational purposes (E-1), and a variety of academic facilities could be built in addition to housing that would not require variances.
“Rezoning Butler as residential would ratify the university’s own statements that residential is the best way to use the land,” Goldfarb said. “It also fits Princeton’s master plan, which recognizes a commitment to controlling development along the edges of the Princeton University campus to insure a smooth transition between the university and the community.”
Resident Tasha O’Neill and others asked the council to preserve the character of the area and keep it residential.
Resident Anne Neumann, who is a candidate for Princeton Council, called on the mayor and council to hold all discussions about the issue in a transparent matter in public, “just the way relations between town and university should be handled, n an open manner.”
Princeton Business Administrator Marc Dashield suggested that the issue be forwarded to town staff members.
“There are a number of alternatives — there may be some solutions to address the concerns raised by residents,” Dashield said. “The planning board will have to be involved in the process at some point.”
Councilwoman Jo Butler said the town should take the steps to change the zoning. She also wants the town to look at rezoning the Springdale golf course property, which is also owned by Princeton University.
“We should take a look at that. It might be another buffer area we want to consider,” Butler said.
Officials debated whether rezoning is necessary or a memorandum of understanding would be sufficient. Some officials expressed concerns about whether a memorandum of understanding is binding.
The zoning issues were raised during a discussion of the Princeton Council’s priorities for 2016.
Mayor Liz Lempert, whose husband works for Princeton University, did not like the idea of revising the Council’s goals to include rezoning university property. The town has other goals to tackle this year like affordable housing, and it is already March, she said. Some Council members said the town should move swiftly on changing the zoning. Lempert did not feel it is an urgent matter.
“From what I’ve heard and read, the university will no be releasing its campus plan for 18 months. It’s unlikely to come out in 2016,” she said. “I agree would be good for us to do the work we are going to do this year, but if we do it by November or December, it is still likely to be six months ahead of the university releasing anything.”
Butler said she would prefer to move faster than November.
Councilman Bernie Miller said the town should consider creative residential zoning for the Butler Tract.
“It may not be to our advantage to make the zoning more like the riverside area,” Miller said. “It may be to our advantage to allow something slightly denser in terms of population for residential development.”
Lempert repeated her concern about the process and adding things to the governing body’s list of goals and priorities. She said the zoning issue could possibly be a special exception.
The zoning issue will be referred to staff members and considered again at another council meeting.
Build in 1947, the Butler Tract houses were originally part of the Reconversion Housing Project for Veterans and provided returning veterans with what was to be temporary, barrack-style housing. In 1988, an additional 56 modular units were added to the development for a total of 304 single-level, bungalow housing units. Lakeside, a new University development along Faculty Road, replaced Butler. The demolition of the Butler Tract began in December.
University officials announced last summer that the site would be used for event parking, at least in the short-term. School officials said the University did not have plans for the site yet, but that it would likely become housing. Plans will be developed as part of the school’s campus planning process for 2026, officials said. Previously the school announced that a reconstruction plan for Butler would include about 220 new housing units to be allocated for rental and purchase by faculty and staff. The proposed plans for the Butler Tract included more than 110 stacked flat units, about 70 townhouses, and a mix of about 40 single-family dwellings.