To the Editor:
Thanks to all who worked hard to settle the social and legal issues in affordable housing. I write as a resident and a retired member of the Princeton Emergency Planning Committee.
Now that the affordable housing ordinances are largely in place, Princeton faces issues of scale, design, and public safety. It will be up to the site plan review board and, ultimately, the planning board to strive for the best site designs and safest construction materials rather than only formulas put forth by developers.
Many large fires have occurred in multi-unit housing in New Jersey (notably Edgewater, Maplewood, Lakewood) as well as in other states. In Edgewater, 500 people lost their homes in January 2015 in the large AvalonBay wooden housing development. This event was preceded in 2000 at the same site, when the same company’s development went up in flames destroying nine nearby, occupied homes and more than 12 cars.
Fifty years ago, building codes required masonry firewalls between adjacent units. Now firewalls are few and far between, and are not necessarily non-combustible, even though the projects are ever larger and taller. Over the last several decades the building codes have been steadily eroded by industry influence. This affects affordable, market, and luxury rate housing. Residents have been distracted by fancy kitchen appliances and other amenities, assuming the building construction is safe or the “government” wouldn’t allow it.
A large fire in Princeton (Grigg’s Farm) at Christmastime in 2016 left one person dead and 35 homeless. It took more than a year to rebuild the burnt units. This fire might have been worse but for the spaces between buildings. The Griggs units are two and three stories, as opposed to the five or six stories being built today. Greater heights pose more serious dangers to fire fighters as well as residents.
Currently, fire and building codes cannot originate at the municipal level. The states adopt these fire and building codes and can have input only every three years, but the construction industry also has great influence on state decisions. States do not always give such input and when done their recommendations do not have to be heeded. The national entity making these decisions is NOT a government agency.
Princeton should not be intimidated by aggressive developers, especially those with a history of large, costly fires. It must strive to protect the public, current and future.
The cost difference between wood and non-combustible materials — e.g., masonry, concrete, and heavy steel (light steel buckles in intense heat) — is not great especially in comparison to losses to residents, towns, and local businesses when a fire occurs (see buildingstudies.org). The companies which build such housing protect themselves with insurance but many residential renters do not have such protection.
The primary solutions to fire safety in Princeton’s proposed large scale housing are: a) for developers NOT to attach huge wooden buildings with inadequate firewalls, but to have separated structures; and b) to use non-combustible construction materials for large multi-unit housing.