Concept plan for affordable housing site at Princeton Shopping Center falls short of important goals

To the Editor,

With Princeton’s need for more affordable housing so acute and a collective desire for stronger communities, we should not delay in delivering housing that enables more mixed-income households and families to become part of the fabric of our town. Unfortunately, the concept plan and development restrictions embedded in the ordinance creating an Affordable Housing Overlay Zone at the Princeton Shopping Center (Ordinance #2020-21) fall short of this goal. With modest modifications, though, we could weave this new development into the surrounding neighborhood in a way that is respectful of existing neighborhood character, promotes sustainability, and upholds The Third Round Housing Plan Element and Fair Share Plan’s ambition to “reinforce the human scale, diversity of residential opportunity, variety of experience, and balance of uses that are the essence of Princeton.”  It would be regrettable not to make the small changes in the ordinance that would make such a big difference for the households, families, and neighbors who will live there and nearby.

Specifically, reducing the height allowance would connect the structure to the surrounding community. The draft ordinance allows for a height that is 170% of the next tallest building anywhere nearby, the McCaffrey’s supermarket.  Ensuring the development is built on-grade and with reasonable setback ratios would avoid having an imposing block that looms over the surrounding homes. Reducing the 95% impervious coverage allowance to a level that promotes green space for parks, gardens, landscaping, etc. would increase the quality of life for the new residents while making a positive statement about Princeton’s regard for sustainability and concerns for climate change. Really? We’re only going to give the Earth 5% access? I’m not saying we need to bring back paradise, but let’s not completely forget what we had before the parking lot.

Creating multiple entry points through and around the site would encourage pedestrian traffic and interaction with the surrounding community. Smart planning of parking spaces and loading docks would be more in line with the recently approved Third Round Housing Plan Element. A concept plan that does not relegate residents to staring out at asphalt, automobiles, and Amazon trucks is well within our grasp. Finally, requiring a concept plan that delivers a realized density closer to seven units per acre would offer connection between the housing, the shopping center, and the rest of the neighborhood. The concept plan, with it’s huddled mass of housing on a small fraction of the 29 acre overlay zone, squanders the opportunity to create an engaging hub of mixed-use activity. 

I understand this ordinance is being accelerated through council to meet court-mandated affordable housing deadlines and will be voted on Monday, July 27. What the building looks like is not an affordable housing issue, though and need not cause any delay. In fact, the vast majority of the units – about 80% – are not even affordable housing units. We have a chance to strengthen our town while not delaying the promise of more affordable housing by a single day. Striking language tying the town to a concept plan the Princeton Planning Board unanimously recommended be removed is a good start. With this, and other minor modifications to the ordinance, we can build a better community for everyone.

Greg Robinson
Clearview Avenue