To the Editor:
On Thursday, April 1, the Princeton Planning Board will consider the designation of yet another Area in Need of Redevelopment (ANR), the third such designation for Princeton in fewer than five years. This time it is for properties comprising over 40 acres on or near the Princeton Shopping Center.
As the Planning Board considers this option, we would like to offer a cautionary tale to our friends and neighbors throughout town. The Area in Need of Redevelopment designation will impact all of Princeton, so we would like to encourage all Princetonians to pay close attention.
Almost any neighborhood could be shoehorned into meeting the definition of an Area in Need of Redevelopment, although such a designation is not in the spirit of the statewide law that established this redevelopment framework. Imagine how different the future would be if the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood had been declared an Area in Need of Redevelopment rather than designated our 20th historic district.
The Princeton Council should give careful consideration as to whether they intend to continue to use this ANR designation, a designation not intended for a town like Princeton, as the proper tool to redevelop many parts of Princeton.
In 2018, the Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) approached the town with their strategic plan, which involved moving all of their student housing onto their Princeton campus. To do so, they would need to redevelop the Tennent-Roberts Campus and the Whiteley Gymnasium (TRW) parcels, located at the intersections of Stockton Street with Hibben Road and Edgehill Street. Officials from the town advised PTS to consider using the ANR pathway for their proposed redevelopment and PTS agreed to do so. PTS then approached the neighbors about their plan, most of which seemed reasonable, and so the neighbors didn’t object. A promised benefit to the neighborhood included addressing issues such as stormwater runoff, traffic and parking in a holistic way. In addition to the TRW properties, the final ANR designation included three historic single-family homes on Stockton, Edgehill and Library Place, the open field on Mercer at Hibben, the Erdman Center and the Adams House.
One of the expected benefits of the ANR designation is the ability for more input by the public – a partnership among the residents, the town and the developer, if you will. Our public meetings, held in 2018-19, were tightly controlled, and the greatest benefit seemed to be the opportunity for the elected officials to understand our neighborhood. They learned we have traffic and storm water issues. They learned that we are a historic neighborhood bordering an educational institution, the type of neighborhood that the Princeton Master Plan says requires special attention. They learned we are a gateway to Princeton, and that the neighbors care deeply about the contribution of open space to the gateway. What we didn’t learn, until it was too late, was that many large buildings would be required to meet the needs of PTS, well over two times the underlying zoning – a fundamental change to the entire neighborhood.
Many of us now regret not objecting to the ANR designation, and here is why.
The ANR designation allows the town and the property owner to dispense with current zoning. Once the ANR designation for a neighborhood is approved by Council, it isn’t going away. Regardless of whether a redevelopment plan is ever filed and regardless of who ultimately owns the property, the designation remains. In our neighborhood, we had a lengthy process in which the key element – the actual plan for the buildings – was not disclosed to neighbors until far into the process – at which point the process derailed.
PTS had telegraphed earlier in the process that, if a suitable redevelopment plan was not approved, PTS would look to sell the TRW campus. Thus, it was no surprise that PTS offered the TRW campus portion of the ANR for sale last year; it is now under contract to a private developer. Had the ANR originally been proposed by a private developer, rather than a venerable education institution, we would have had serious objections, and we would have encouraged the developer to rely upon the underlying zoning. The ANR designation, in whole or in part, remains with the property. The town conferred considerable value to PTS and any subsequent private developer while leaving our neighborhood in limbo, a situation that threatens the character of one of Princeton’s oldest historic neighborhoods.
We encourage all of Princeton to pay attention now – this could happen in your neighborhood, too. Learn the facts about ANR and the impact it can have in your neighborhood or other locations throughout our town. Once the Planning Board makes a recommendation in support of an ANR, decision-making authority shifts to the Council. Please understand that the town always has the potential to create new zoning without an ANR, and the public would have safeguards and the opportunity for input. One of the reasons that towns use the ANR is to move quickly by circumventing the established zoning process. In Princeton, we need to ask if this is really necessary to achieve our town-wide redevelopment goals.