Princeton Planning Board: Thanet site fits with master plan

The 15-acre Thanet property.

The Princeton Planning Board determined by a unanimous vote at a special meeting on Tuesday night that two new zoning districts along Thanet Road conform to the town’s master plan.

The vote paves the way for the Princeton Council to approve redevelopment plans for 100-101 Thanet Circle Wednesday night at a special meeting that will begin at 7 p.m. in the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon Street. The council is slated to vote on a redevelopment plan for the site and a redevelopment agreement with apartment developer AvalonBay. The council is also slated to introduce an ordinance approving a financial agreement with AvalonBay that includes a 30-year PILOT agreement. AvalonBay will pay the municipality 11% of adjusted gross revenue annually for the new development for 30 years in lieu of paying taxes to the schools and municipality. In exchange for the 30-year PILOT, AvalonBay is giving the town about 2.1 acres of land at the site for the town to develop as an affordable senior housing development.

According to the affordable housing settlement resolution passed in December, the development of the 80 senior housing units will cost between $15 million and $20 million. The municipality intends to fund the project with the use of 4% volume cap tax credits, its affordable housing trust fund, and municipal bonding. The 4% tax credit program provides 30 percent of project costs for projects that qualify and are approved by the state. The municipality is planning on borrowing about 8 million for the project.

A resolution is also on the agenda Wednesday night to approve Ohio-based company PIRHL Developers and Princeton LIHTC Urban Renewal as the developers of the senior project at the Thanet site. This will be the company’s second senior project in New Jersey.

The council will also vote on a memorandum of understanding for a housing development at 301 North Harrison Street. The project will be developed on Princeton Shopping Center property land.

All of the votes are related to a lawsuit filed by town officials almost five years ago challenging the number of affordable units the municipality would be required to build under the state’s affordable housing obligations. The settlement details were revealed to the public on Dec. 18 when the Princeton governing body approved the lawsuit settlement agreement.

The AvalonBay development on Thanet Road will replace two office buildings with a 221-unit residential development that will include 210
market-rate units and 11 affordable housing units. The senior housing project on the site will include 80 apartment units for people who are 55 or older. At a meeting on Dec. 12, the planning board recommended that the Thanet site be designated an area in need of redevelopment. At the special meeting on Dec. 18, the council voted to designate the Thanet site as an area in need of redevelopment.

At the planning board meeting Tuesday night, some residents expressed concerns about the development, including environmental concerns and questions about how much traffic the projects will generate. Some residents also said the approvals of the redevelopment agreements and projects feel rushed when the public has just been informed about the projects over the last two months.

Resident Megan Mitchell said it seems that the town is scrambling because of the court order, and said the redevelopment plans should be studied further before being approved.

Town Planner Michael LaPlace said the planning board review related to the master plan is just beginning of the design process. AvalonBay’s plans will still require preliminary and final site plan approvals. He also said AvalonBay has presented two versions of the concept plan for the site, and that AvalonBay is open to feedback in terms of what is built.

Mitchell said she doesn’t think the plans comply with the town’s master plan, and that the plans are not a thoughtful use of land. She also questioned why the town is agreeing to pay AvalonBay $500 a day for any project delays.

“If it’s anything like the process so far, it will be rushed and it will not allow time for thoughtful reflection and planning,” Mitchell said of the plans.

Mitchell said the town seems to be in a pickle. She compared the town’s situation to a child who is asked to clean his room over and over. “Then you say if you are not cleaning your room in 10 minutes, everything on the floor will be throw away,” she said. “You then come back and everything has been shoved in a closet. This development is like shoving everything in the closet. It does not comply with the Princeton master plan.”

Other residents asked how much say the town will have regarding lighting, traffic, circulation, and other issues.

Councilman David Cohen, the council representative to the planning board, said he thinks the AvalonBay development is very consistent with the town’s master plan because it offers opportunities for new affordable housing and encourages walkability. “If anyone up here disagrees with me, I want you to tell me why — not just because you want to have leverage over the developer,” he said. “That’s a tactic, not a reason. The best thing we can do is to make specific suggestions about things they can do to improve the plan. If we make good suggestions that don’t cost an arm and a leg, there is a decent chance they will incorporate them.”

Resident Kip Cherry said she thinks there are many inconsistencies with the project fitting into the master plan. She expressed concerns about fire safety measures at the AvalonBay site, as well as concerns about the impacts on public schools and other public facilities. The public schools don’t receive a penny from the PILOT but lose out on all tax revenue for the 30 years, she said. She asked whether there is a willingness to carve out a piece of the PILOT for the public schools.

Cohen said AvalonBay has nothing to do with any decision about how the PILOT is spent, and that the issue would be up to the council and school district to work out.

Planning board member and councilperson Mia Sacks said of all the options, the one the town chose with the 30-year PILOT was considered the best choice by school officials. “This particular configuration was the first choice of the school board,” she said, adding that if the town had to build an inclusionary project on the AvalonBay site instead where 20 percent of units are affordable and the rest are market-rate units, to get to the same number of affordable units a density of 400 units would have been built at the site, generating more school children.

Resident Mark Freda, who is running for mayor, asked the board several questions during the public comment period and said it was not clear how the site qualifies as an area in need of redevelopment, as opposed to a site the seller wanted to sell at the price he wanted.

“We already voted on this almost a year ago,” Sacks said.  Cohen said the office buildings on the site were obsolete. The lawyer for the planning board said the project meets state guidelines for areas in need of redevelopment. Sacks also said the town couldn’t have worked out a PILOT deal without the property being declared an area in need of redevelopment.

“If the PILOT is not in the best interest of the community overall, it calls into question the whole thing,” Freda said, adding that the arrangement sounds like spot zoning. The lawyer for the town said the deal is not spot zoning.

Freda questioned why town officials didn’t talk to more than one developer about what to do with the property. Officials said AvalonBay owns the property or is under contract to purchase the property pending municipal approvals. They were not sure what the ownership situation is.

Planning Board member Lousie Wilson said the redevelopment plan is unusual because it exists under the umbrella of the affordable housing settlement agreement.

“The town does have less flexibility than it otherwise would have. That’s just a fact of life,” she said. “From my perspective, this plan is very much consistent with the mast plan in some really important ways. It oncerns me in other ways.”

Former Councilwoman Jo Butler said the town previously did outreach on the property to find a buyer. “We would have loved to have the ratables,” she said, adding that AvalonBay is a strong financial partner with deep pockets. “You can’t underestimate the value of that,” she said, adding that developers often buy properties and then go bankrupt.

A few residents and a planning board member asked if the redevelopment plan vote could be delayed a few months in order for there to be more discussion and review. Cohen said the council would be voting on the plan the following day on Wednesday, and that the town only has 90 days to enact the affordable housing plan, including rezoning sites. “It’s a very limited window,” he said.

Residents asked if changes could be made to the redevelopment plan before the council approves it Wednesday. Cohen said no substantial changes can be made or the council would have to reintroduce the plan at a later date.

Bill Wolfe of the town’s site plan review advisory board expressed concerns about the site plan review process, saying the review process should be explicitly mentioned in writing, along with details about what the review entails. He also expressed concerns about the site possibly being misrepresented in plans included in a report he reviewed. The plan drawings don’t show detention basins that exist on the site, he said. “In fact, I think they are in the area where the footprint for the senior building is,” he said.

Asked about public spaces inside the buildings or on the property, officials said the AvalonBay site could include a playground that the public is allowed to use.  Some officials said shuttle service provided by the shopping center owners in the future should also include a stop at the AvalonBay site for people who don’t want to walk half a mile to the shopping center. Officials discussed the possibility of a cafe or small convenience store being located on the AvalonBay site as well. Some planning board members said the site should encourage walking and cycling, as well as offering electric vehicle charging stations.

Planning Board member Tim Quinn said there is nothing preventing residents from giving feedback to the planning office. He said the plan is in the best interest of the community and would lessen the potential impact on the schools. “It’s a pretty good deal,” he said, adding that he thinks the plan absolutely does comply with the town’s master plan.

Zenon Tech-Czarny, also a planning board member, said he thinks the master plan is a bit ambiguous. “In certain ways, the plan conforms with it, and in certain ways it doesn’t,” Tech-Czarny said. “Ultimately the master plan should be saying where we want to develop in the future, and we should have made those decisions many years ago instead of tonight. This is a nudge for the future to be more proactive so it doesn’t come down to making decisions at the last minute.”

Planning Board Chairwoman Wanda Gunning said the town desperately needs a new master plan. “We really need a new master plan, and we need it now,” she said. “Over 20-plus years there have only been a few changes. We need to tell the council we need the funding.”