An op-ed from Princeton Future by Kevin Wilkes, president and Sheldon Sturges, executive director
It is time, once again, to get very serious about expanding affordable housing in Princeton. As part of its legal obligation under the Mt. Laurel doctrine, the town will provide 80 affordable housing units on what was once the hospital parking lot on Franklin Avenue, a 10-minute walk from Nassau Street and the Princeton University campus. It’s an obligation that some Princeton residents also see as an opportunity – a chance to combine the new affordable housing with an additional number of market-rate units that would also increase the stock of housing for people otherwise priced out of the Princeton real estate market. Such a mixed-income project would advance the town’s goals of diversity and sustainability and also respond to new guidelines for 9% federal low-income
housing tax credits administered by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. The new guidelines encourage, among other things, “mixed-income development to avoid segregating low- and moderate-income housing.”
On February 29, almost 100 people, including architects, real estate developers, leaders of community organizations, and civic-minded residents attended an open meeting hosted by Princeton Future, the non-profit community group that promotes sustainable and ethically informed development. The three-hour event at the Princeton Public Library represented Princeton Future’s commitment to community inclusion, democratic participation, and transparency in the evaluation of concepts informing urban growth. It yielded a plethora of ideas and information useful to the town as it attempts to take advantage of the opportunities presented on Franklin Avenue.
Since then, Princeton Future has facilitated additional workshops with a half dozen Princeton-based architects and planners, all volunteering their time to further develop possibilities for the site. More recently, Princeton Council announced that it was dissolving its memorandum of understanding with the Princeton Housing Authority and Princeton Community Housing and will continue on its own to meet the obligations of the court settlement for affordable housing on the Franklin Avenue site. Princeton Future believes that the ongoing discussions about the site, beginning with the February 29 meeting and continuing with the architects’ workshops, can provide food for thought and topics for discussion among elected officials, affordable housing advocates, neighbors, and other concerned citizens as the council moves to meet the town’s obligations.
As real estate values have skyrocketed in recent decades, Princeton is at risk of becoming a gilded cage where people of standard means find it increasingly difficult or even impossible to live. While the town has nurtured housing opportunities for people of diverse means, the effort has not always kept pace with economic realities. In 1975, the Mount Laurel legal suit resulted in a mandate requiring that municipalities in New Jersey use their zoning powers in an affirmative manner to provide a realistic opportunity for the production of housing affordable to low- and moderate-income households. Several objectives have emerged from the Princeton Future discussions:
Mixed-income housing is highly desirable.
Affordable units and market-determined rental units should be built in equal numbers on Franklin Avenue. Located within short walks of Community Park and Pool, the municipal complex, public schools, public transit, the site also enjoys a southern view over the Princeton Cemetery and the Princeton University skyline. Located between Witherspoon Street and Jefferson Road, the site is a prime location for housing at all levels of affordability. The balance would be beneficial as it would yield revenues sufficient to provide adequate services and proper maintenance of the property.
A Range of units will be beneficial.
An efficient use of space to enable more families and individuals to occupy housing units will benefit the community. The site could accommodate the 80 mandated units with an equal portion of market-rate units at a density that is only 25% greater than the density of the Avalon Bay project on the other side of Franklin Avenue.
The development should be complemented by public open spaces that would serve adjoining neighborhoods as well as the new development. Pedestrian and bicycle paths should provide linkages to the surrounding neighborhoods.
There should be no difference in appearance or function between affordable and market-rate units. The goal is to foster diversity without stigmatizing less affluent residents.
Beauty, elegance and quality
Beauty, elegance, and quality of construction should be aggressively pursued. Architects and developers should imagine creative ways to avoid common problems in the construction of affordable housing, including the selection of inferior materials or cramped quarters.
Sustainable and efficient
The development should strive to make efficient use of sustainable technologies like solar energy, and landscaping to surround buildings with trees and vegetation. Net-zero is a goal.
We need to keep the development at human scale and make it neighborhood friendly.
No surface parking.
Discussion of the site needs to be tempered by several realities:
The current site includes three tracts of land, two owned by the municipality and one owned by the Princeton Housing Authority. As the development proceeds, matters of ownership, both of the land involved and of the buildings planned, will have to be clarified.
Zoning for the new development will have to be determined.
Relocation of the tenants in the 20 existing units on the site will have to be planned with a minimum of disruption. Listening very carefully to the current tenants is a high priority. Harmonious collaboration will be helpful to the municipality, which bears the responsibility for ensuring the affordable housing units regardless of the community support it receives.
The affordable housing on Franklin Avenue will require a variety of funding sources. No entity is in a position to shoulder the costs alone. The goal is to be cost-neutral to the Princeton taxpayer. While the inclusion of market-rate housing in such a desirable location will help underwrite some of the overall costs, some of the amenities and design features that would be nice to have may prove to be too costly to have.
Princeton Future sees the February meeting and the subsequent design workshops as first steps in an ongoing attempt to gather ideas and best practices for the development of additional affordable housing. The organization looks forward to creating other opportunities for dialogue
and deliberation among residents, government officials, developers, designers, and architects whose common purpose is to create a more diverse, equitable, sustainable, and vibrant community.
Following is an image showing an aerial of the present site at Franklin Avenue.