Planet Princeton

Princeton Council will consider developer’s request for changes to Waxwood housing agreement in historic Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood

The Princeton Council will hold a special meeting at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 16, to consider developer J. Robert Hillier’s proposal to change the terms of an agreement for the Waxwood development in the historic Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood.

Even though the meeting is billed as a work session, the governing body often makes a decision at these sessions about what direction the town should take on issues. The actual formal vote is slated for the public meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 21.

Some Waxwood residents question why the council is considering the issue at an 8 a.m. meeting on a weekday in the middle of August, when many people are away or are at work. They also question why such an important issue is being voted on in August, when many people are away.

In 2002, the Princeton Borough Council approved a developer’s agreement with Hillier, and the zoning board approved variances, for the conversion of the Waxwood on Quarry Street into 34 condominium units. The units would be rentals for five years and then be sold. Three of the 34 proposed condominium units were designated low-income or moderate-income units. For each of the three affordable units, Hillier was responsible for providing a direct subsidy equal to the difference between the market price and the affordable housing price requirements of the municipality’s affordable housing program.

Hillier also agreed to sell five additional units to Witherspoon neighborhood residents who don’t meet state income requirements for affordable housing, according to the agreement. Assistance was to be provided by the Waxwood Foundation, a foundation set up by Hillier to assist residents who have lived in the neighborhood for ten years or more or who are the direct descendants of residents in the historic neighborhood, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the state. Under the agreement, all covenants and conditions were binding on all the parties and their successors.

The agreement was amended to allow Hillier to rent the units out for five years so he could receive generous federal tax credits for the project, which preserved the historic building that was once a school for black children.

In 2010, Hillier was granted an extension by the Princeton Borough Council that allowed him to wait another five years to sell the units as condominiums. Hillier said back in 2010 that selling the units would be a financial hardship for him because the housing market had crashed. He later received a second extension.

Now, Hillier has requested a permanent modification to the developer’s agreement, seeking a release from the provision that would require the conversion of the rental units to for-sale units. .

Some neighborhood residents see the move as a bait and switch, and say Hillier is breaking promises to the neighborhood. Some tenants have been waiting for several years for the opportunity to buy the units they have been renting.

Hiller has enlisted former Witherspoon-Jackson resident John Bailey’s help to try to convince residents and the council to support the change to the agreement. Bailey, a political consultant who now lives in Colorado, runs the Joint Effort Witherspoon-Jackson Safe Streets Program. Bailey’s program is funded by donations from local businesses, individuals and organizations. Hillier hosted a kick off reception for Bailey’s program at his office on Witherspoon Street.

A letter signed by Hillier and Bailey went out today asking people to do them a favor and show up at the council meetings to support the changes Hillier wants.

Hillier said in the letter that for the foundation units,  the discount of 20 percent was provided to be an equity participation in the ownership so the foundation could buy the units back when the owner wanted to sell the property.

“Our concern is that there are not enough eligible people in the neighborhood who can afford to purchase the units since the ownership would cost about 25 percent more per month than the rental plus the cost of repairing and replacing such items as appliances would now fall to the owners,” the letter reads. “In the spirit of a deal is a deal, and to fulfill our personal commitment to the neighborhood, we have offered to provide seven affordable units for members of the neighborhood as our first alternative to the condominium sale model. To dispel any suspicions, the alternative is not about profit…in fact it represents a reduction in revenue of more than $30,000 a year. This is about affordable housing! ”

The letter urges people to attend the meetings and support Hillier. “If you could attend both of these meetings it would be terrific,” the letter reads. “The second meeting is especially important. There you could express your feelings that the Waxwood better serves the community as a rental with more affordable units.”

A link to the Town Topics photo from the reception Hillier held for Bailey (Hillier is one of the owners of the Town Topics):

Photo: A poster that circulated in October when Hillier approached the council about amending the developer’s agreement permanently. 

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.

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