Princeton Council Approves Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District

It’s official – the town of Princeton now has 20 historic districts.

Princeton Council members voted 5-0 on Monday night to approve the historic district designation for the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.

Several residents repeated speeches they have given at previous meetings asking officials to preserve the African-American history of the neighborhood.

“If not now, when?” Councilman Bernie Miller said as he voiced support for the historic district designation.

Some officials were concerned about approving the ordinance for the district because it mistakenly includes the historic African-American portion of the Princeton Cemetery. Officials decided the council could approve the ordinance and amend it later to remove the cemetery.

A few landowners also lobbied to have their properties removed from the district. Officials said they could consider removing properties later.

Councilman Patrick Simon expressed concerns about the cost of historic district designation for homeowners who want to demolish or renovate buildings, but decided to vote for the ordinance because of the desire expressed by neighborhood residents who wanted the district created to preserve its history. Simon had argued that the town needs to do more work before approving a historic district ordinance, including developing design standards. He also said the town should tackle the issue of affordability and McMansions in a more comprehensive way.

“Frankly our work up to this point is excellent some respects, but not in others,” he said. “We have not done as much work and due diligence on behalf of residents as we should have.”

Simon said the town should be taking a multi-pronged approach when it comes maintaining the character of the neighborhood.

“I don’t think the historic designation solves the problems,” he said.

Miller said it is not clear whether the historic designation will raise or lower taxes for property owners.


  1. The comments from the dais last night were anything but encouraging. If I understand the ordinance correctly, exemptions were handed out to the privileged (the Packet and the Presbyterian Church), but denied to less prominent homeowners. The subject of property tax relief was dropped like a hot potato (Patrick went so far as to scold me for suggesting that such relief might be possible). Bernie intoned, in his best ex cathedra manner, that it is not clear whether or not residents’ costs will rise or fall (he did not specifically mention property taxes).

    Worse, I think I understood from the introductory remarks that exemptions will be handed out to developers, provided only that they construct apartment buildings that are 100% “affordable” — which, given recent precedents, seems to me an invitation to mow down large swaths of the neighborhoods the ordinance ostensibly seeks to preserve.

    Curiously, nobody asked why the Packet sought — and received — an exemption. The obvious answer is that the Packet’s owners consider that the ordinance will limit resale options — and thereby cap resale values. The Packet’s owner was happy to bless the ordinance — but only after his own properties had been exempted. I infer that he received an exemption because he would otherwise have litigated the designation on the basis that it constitutes an illegal taking.

    More ordinary property owners should take notice of the Packet’s position. They are likely to find that the costs of necessary and discretionary maintenance will be significantly higher as a result of the new ordinance. They are likely also to find that their resale options are more limited.

    What I found most striking about the proceedings was the Council’s repeated use of words like “recognize” and “acknowledge”. I did not hear anyone on the Council use the word “protect”.

    Yes, recognition is long overdue. But the neighborhood will be saved only if the town moves aggressively to protect it — e.g. by offering property tax relief, or enacting meaningful prohibitions on large scale redevelopment, or by eliminating the long standing practice of two tiered zoning/planning enforcement (i.e. one set of rules for the privileged and another set for everyone else). Sadly, as was made abundantly clear last night, protection was not part of the Council’s agenda,

    Peter Marks

  2. A joyful conclusion to a thought-provoking evening!

    Two personal notes: first, I live in an historic district, and, to answer Patrick Simon’s concerns, I have found the expense of repairing a 190-year-old house no more burdensome than a modern house whose wallboard comes with a fail-by date. We replaced our roof when we moved in, and repainted the house’s exterior 10 years later. No more expense than anyone would expect in any house. AND, as we heard last night, Witherspoon-Jackson neighbors will be able to replace windows with aluminum ones and exterior cladding with vinyl, since those materials are already common in the area. I’m convinced that historic designation won’t cost the neighbors more on average, and that, as Dosier Hammond mentioned last night, it’s the best way to protect them from rising property taxes as tear-downs and rebuilds raise assessments for everyone else on the block.

    A second personal note: I belong to that cohort of white Borough Princetonians who went to junior high school between 1948 and 1968 and who were therefore fortunate enough to benefit from the faculty and staff who remained at the Quarry Street school after the “Princeton Plan” integrated it. I think particularly of Simeon Moss, who taught me history but also taught me how to learn; Florence Harris, who made the moon’s phases and compound interest equally thrilling; and Howard B. Waxwood, principal, for whom no praise is too high, as even a sixth- to eighth-grader like me could recognize.

    I think too, with great affection, of walking past neighbors on their porches on my way to and from school. One envisions many Princeton neighborhoods as houses; Witherspoon-Jackson was a neighborhood of people. But I’m glad the houses will be preserved too. Now the descendants can remain of the people who watched and no doubt commented on my progress as I walked back and forth to school. And they can be joined by the new families who value living close to downtown, close to their neighbors, and close to each other in modest houses.

    Blessings be upon you, Witherspoon-Jackson!

    1. With regard to maintenance/renovation costs, Tom and Ann Chapman who lived at 14 Alexander St (in the Mercer Hill Historic District) until recently, said exactly the same thing. They renovated their kitchen (including what can be seen from the street), and replaced their carport. They wrote that the then Borough HPC was very helpful, and that by consulting with the HPC as the project progressed, everything went smoothly.

      1. Since we are now offering anecdotal evidence as proof of the ease and convenience of living in a Historic District, I’ll provide a different perspective:

        Our friends 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 adequate 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), not to mention the additional costs to rent the storage, and to hire a professional to prepare the otherwise simple plans and another professional to advise on how to navigate the process effectively. All 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 gable and the light fixture on the front were just to their liking.

        Historic Preservation in Princeton is a very subjective process. The HPC acts without true design standards. In fact, the whole Historic Preservation process has been co-opted to reach ends not originally intended. For example, as Ms. Neumann states, “Witherspoon-Jackson neighbors will be able to replace windows with aluminum ones and exterior cladding with vinyl, since those materials are already common in the area.” They certainly were not common in the area for the bulk of the District’s “period of significance (1830-1969)” as determined by WISE’s Historic Survey.
        The National Park Service, in its Preservation Briefs, states:

        “Because applications of substitute materials such as aluminum and vinyl siding can either destroy or conceal historic building material and features and, in consequence, result in the loss of a building’s historic character, they are not recommended by the National Park Service. Such destruction or concealment of historic materials and features confuses the public perception of that which is truly historic and that which is imitative.”
        Alas, Princeton’s play to control zoning through the use of a Historic Preservation District fails to honor the substance of Historic Preservation and in turn dishonors this important district, allowing it to be further bastardized and dismantled, one wooden window and clapboard at a time. What a farce!

  3. I am for the idea of the historical district, and I am in favor of us honoring the black community and its contributions to Princeton and to America; but i fear that Mr. Simon is correct when he says not enough due diligence nor investigation of pros and cons , was done by the city council on this matter.

    I also feel the emotional rhetoric overcame reason and questions that were gemane: 1. how did the weis group and ms. kim decide what should and should not be in the W/J area?
    2. what are ms. Kim’s real qualifications, and the other woman with her, who kept trying to read what the rules were (it made me feel that she didn’t really know so that she had to keep covering her tail with endless readings instead of cutting to the chase); thus, the competence of the two fo them must be investigated more thoroughly.
    3. Ms.Howard seems not to be fully aware of what is located on Birch and what is on Witherspoon Street of my property; I do have a back door on Birch, but my peoperty was never part of the W/J area historically, and by doing this, it will block a chance to make Witherspoon Street into a vibrant area of both more housing and a chance to have shops and food places on the ground floor (with the housing above)–which will increase tax revenue for Princeton, provide more affordable housing and give the neighborhood people more jobs. I am going to request that Ms. Howard come walk with me so that she can see the reality of what i speak and am also going to invite Ms. Kim and her erstwhile colleague to join us as well as any other members of the City Council to join us as they wish.
    4. So many “do-gooders” have no real sense of the situation; they may have some delayed “white guilt” as well as real desire for good deeds, but as a double minority, I do not want them to tell me how to conduct my business; I’ve spent to many years serving America and fighting for the Constitution and the rights of all minorities, to be pushed around without a serious ethical, legal and moral fight. Someone said, if I have a lawsuit, but I prefer not to have to do that, that it would be frivolous –but let me make clear, I did not attend the best law school in America, The University of Chicago Law School, to waste my time or to waste money on frivolous matters.
    5. May I also add that people do not realize the arbitrary authority the Historical District administrators have, and can exercise, that may lead to excessive costs, incorrect judgments, and legal problems–having examined Historical Districts across America, few have gone as well as people had thought, and the costs for the municipalities and individuals has outrun most estimates. Some attacked Mr. Simon’s examples, but aside from those large ones he used there are thousands of others that have to do with home-owners fighting with shallow Historical District officials, in cases where even local politics and politicians were implicated ( I am not suggesting this in the case of Princeton, but it could come to pass as it has elsewhere in America). One has but to look at the legal records and you will find the evidence I speak of.

    Dr. Sam Hamod 4.12.16

  4. Great.

    Now residents of Witherspoon-Jackson area will be slapped with fines as their windows, doors and who know what else do not comply with ‘historic’ look.

    Many residents have satellite dish antennas installed on their porches, balconies and roofs.

    Well – you now have to take them down or make them in compliance with historic designation rules.

    Lastly don’t forget one thing. NONE of the council members live in Witherspoon-Jackson area.

    Some of their friends are already excused from these rules.

  5. I find the whole thing very disappointing. Without rehashing the pros and cons of historic preservation, I note that it would certainly have been possible to create this historic district based on consensus, and taking account of reasonable suggestions and objections, Council instead rammed it through, giving every indication that this was a foregone conclusion. It has been a divisive process, as those who raised concerns about the preservation edict were denounced on these pages and elsewhere by certain local residents and members of the Witherspoon-Jackson community. I hope the damage can be healed and unity restored in the neighbhorhood.

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