The future developer of Princeton Theological Seminary’s Stockton Street (Route 206) properties is proposing to build 238 luxury apartments on the 4.84-acre site, more than double the number the seminary proposed when it sought to build new student apartments at the same location five years ago.
Seminary buildings that once housed married students, Christian education programs, and a gymnasium were demolished more than a year ago. Large fences now surround the properties that were known as the Tennent Roberts Whiteley Campus, considered one of the gateways to Princeton. In 2018, the seminary planned to build 105 student apartments at the site, then abruptly scrapped those plans and entered into a contract in early 2020 with local developer James Herring to purchase the property. The seminary had previously tried to sell the property during the economic downturn.
Under the new proposed plans for the site, a total of 190 apartment units would be market-rate units, and 48 units would be affordable units if the plan is approved by the municipality. That number meets the minimum requirements for affordable units under regulations by the municipality. The affordable units would be the first in the Western Section of Princeton.
The development, which is next to a residential neighborhood, would be a mix of studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom apartments. Some units would have a den that could serve as a workspace.
If the apartments went on the market today, the market-rate units would be in the “high twos or low threes” (thousands of dollars per month) for a one-bedroom unit. A two-bedroom unit would be priced in the “high threes” and a two-bedroom unit with a den would be in the “low fours,” Herring told residents Tuesday night.
The concept plan was presented at a standing-room-only meeting at the municipal building. The meeting was announced less than a week ago on Thursday, Oct. 12. Local officials said the meeting kicks off the next phase of the redevelopment of the seminary property, which the Princeton Council declared an area in need of redevelopment back in 2018 when the seminary sought to replace the student housing there with new apartments for students.
Council President Mia Sacks told the crowd the plan was vetted by local officials over the summer to make sure it meets the municipality’s goals. Steve Mlenak, the redevelopment lawyer for the town, said there will be two council meetings, a planning board meeting, and a public hearing to adopt the redevelopment plan for the site. After that, the town will negotiate a redevelopment agreement with the developer before the project goes through the traditional site plan review process.
Herring told the audience he is a local who is invested in the community and owns many other properties in town, including properties at the former site of the Princeton Medical Center office buildings. A member of the Princeton Democratic Municipal Committee, he serves on the 101: PHS College Fund board and also is one of several developers who sits on the board of Experience Princeton, which was established by the Princeton Council in 2022 as the Princeton Business Partnership, Inc., a special improvement district.
Hoboken-based Marchetto Higgins Stieve Architecture has been selected to design the project. Local architect Marina Rubina, a board member of Princeton Future and a founding member of the Princeton Progressive Action Group, is a strategic consultant for the project.
“There have been many discussions about the site over the last half a decade. Yes, it’s it’s been that long, and yes, the site has been vacant for that period,” Herring said. “As someone who grew up here, I know that the Princeton community likes to evaluate and reevaluate its options.”
Herring said there has been no shortage of ideas about how the town should grow or even if the town should grow, about why the town does or does not need more affordable housing, and whether the town should have projects that are entirely affordable housing.
“Some parts of this process are productive. Good ideas can rise to the top when you have dialogue, and this can help to better define the goals of a project. As someone who has been doing this for a long time. I value the exchange. And we’ve worked hard to incorporate the ideas that we have gathered into our plan over the last two years,” Herring said. “Certainly not every constituency will be satisfied with this. And it is important that this not be forgotten, which it often is — the result when people are not satisfied is a delay or inaction. Nothing gets done and this damages the town in many ways. Constructive ideas get squelched. Good opportunities are squandered as sites sit vacant and tax revenues are lost.”
The proposed development plan
The two parcels for the project are divided by Hibben Road. The larger parcel where Tennent and Roberts halls once stood would include 198 units under Herring’s proposal. The smaller parcel at the corner of Hibben Road where the Whitley gym was once located would include 40 units. A new road would be built within the main property, and cars would enter from Stockton Street.
Herring said the project would follow smart growth principles. About .8 acres of the site would be parks. Herring said the density of 238 apartment units is needed to make the project financially feasible.
The buildings, with some Gothic and Tudor style elements, would be made of stone and stucco and would be three and four stories high, with the tallest points of the buildings at 48 feet above grade. Most of the parking for the apartments would be located underground. The site would offer 262 parking spaces, with 221 spaces below grade, 20 spaces in a surface lot, and 21 spaces for guests along the new road in the development.
Recycled materials, low-flow fixtures, LED lighting, and Energy Star appliances would be used for the project. The complex would have local access to the train station and would offer bike storage, electric vehicle charging stations, stormwater controls, and robust recycling protocols. Officials said it would also help the town meet its affordable housing obligation in terms of its unmet need.
Sixty percent of the property would not be used for building surfaces. It would be used for open space, a road, and parking. Buildings would use 40% of the land, project representatives said.
The target renters of the units would be Princeton University alumni, young professionals, and empty nesters.
More than 100 people attended the meeting, including many affordable housing advocates.
Lawrence resident Sheldon Sturges of Princeton Future said the organization is pleased to see the progress underway for the redevelopment of the property.
“Having held more than a dozen community meetings over the past two years, our community-based nonprofit has heard residents call for more housing in the missing middle and the affordable ranges,” Sturges said. “We have also heard the desire for such housing to be close to the center of town, encouraging a walkable, environmentally sustainable lifestyle and easing the development pressures on the perimeter lands that might someday become an emerald necklace.”
Sturges said the draft community master plan designates the site for multifamily residential use. He added that the former seminary buildings were a gateway to town that signaled to motorists that they were entering Princeton.
“The streetscape along Stockton inhabits spaces and vistas that can be enjoyed by passers-by whether by foot, bicycle, car, or by the public, with improved pedestrian and cyclist crossings and walkways between this project and the central business district less than a half a mile away. In its previous life, this site accommodated more than 100 units of housing for Princeton Theological Seminary and was considered a gateway to Princeton, a signal to motorists that they were entering Princeton,” Sturges said. “We believe that the new development can be more than a gateway, rather a visual statement that people have already entered into a residential neighborhood in Princeton, and a time for motorists to slow down if they haven’t done so already.”
Princeton resident Andrea Gaynor said she and her husband are empty nesters who are in the process of selling their home of 32 years.
“My husband David and I have been disappointed by a lack of desirable options in which to downsize here to stay in Princeton,” Gaynor said. “Upon hearing about the possible development of the seminary property, we realized that it would afford us the convenience, aesthetic, and green space that we desire.”
Gaynor said Princeton has already lost many residents due to a lack of desirable housing options for downsizing. “Many of our friends have jumped the river to Bucks County as a result or gone to other neighboring towns,” she said, adding that it would benefit Princeton if seniors who have more time to volunteer in the community could stay.
Real estate agent Tony DiMeglio said residents in the neighborhood surrounding the project wouldn’t have to worry about their property values going down. He said four houses in the neighborhood have sold for more than $4.5 million over the past year. “The need for housing here is right-sizing, it’s not downsizing,” DiMeglio said.
Stockton Street resident Jessica Vieira said the concept plan looks aesthetically pleasing. “I would say, however, that the devil is in the details and the traffic on Route 206 is horrible. I’m not sure how you’re going to get 221 cars out of a development when there are 18-wheelers coming down 206,” Vieira said. “That said, approaching the state and finding a way to bypass all of that traffic — it’s an accident waiting to happen if you don’t work on that. Finding a way to get all of that 206 cut-through traffic away will help your project tremendously and will help our neighborhood stay as residential as you’re proposing it to be.”
Builder Tom Pinneo, who lives in Princeton and serves on the board of Housing Initiatives of Princeton, said according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, Princeton is part of the single most economically segregated metro area in the United States.
“While many of us may feel the pinch of housing costs, most of us have found a way to make it work because we believe in the benefits and opportunities that a place like Princeton provides,” Pinneo said. “But if your rent burden is defined by being more than 30% of your income used towards housing, then places of opportunity, along with their educational, health, and countless other benefits, are out of reach. Towns like Princeton are precisely where we should be investing in housing and catalyzing social mobility. Inclusionary, or set aside, development like what is proposed here is the best vehicle for that investment, one that there’s doesn’t further stratify or segregate the town and that leans on the developer, and much-needed market-rate housing to pay for the affordable housing.”
Pinneo said choosing in-town density over car-centered housing at the periphery will have consequences we can’t gloss over. “Those consequences are, however, not excuses to not move forward,” Pinneo said. “We need to acknowledge that the immediate neighbors will feel the disruption and change most acutely. To not do so would be disingenuous. But we also need to reaffirm that while we are each residents of an individual neighborhood, we are all collectively citizens of Princeton and responsible for the town as a whole.”
Pinneo said people’s differences and the town’s challenges are manageable if everyone works together.
Hibben Road resident Karen O’Connell said the seminary’s neighbors have been living in the shadow of the area in need of redevelopment for a long time, with many things promised to residents along the way. “One key promise that has not yet been kept is that we would be an important part of the process, and no redevelopment of the sites would result without a mutually acceptable plan,” O’Connell said. She then read from a letter that was sent to residents of the neighborhood two years ago promising that any redevelopment of the property would be the result of a collaborative effort between the contract purchaser and the neighborhood.
“This has not yet occurred, even though we have reached out to the council on many occasions to no avail, in good faith,” O’Connell said. “I asked the council to make good on their commitment and allow us to provide meaningful input and, as the municipality’s own lawyer has stated, work together to achieve a mutually acceptable plan.”
Herring said the town and schools would benefit from the taxes that would be paid on the property. Former councilwoman Jo Butler, who lives on Hibben Road, asked Herring whether he would receive a payment in lieu of taxes deal from the town for the development, Herring said he didn’t know and that nothing has been negotiated yet. Butler pointed out that the school district would not receive any money from a PILOT. Herring said he didn’t know that.
One resident questioned how many school children the project would produce. Herring said this kind of development doesn’t generate many school children.
A few people praised the design of the project, including former mayor Liz Lempert and Princeton Future board member Tony Nelessen, who said the project “would compete with anything the university has built with all its money.”
Sean Jackson, the CEO of Hamilton-based Isles, Inc., applauded the site for “epitomizing smart growth and the use of a transit-oriented development” and said the walkability to downtown is important for people who want to live and work in town. He added that affordable housing best practices call for developments to be mixed-income projects. He suggested that the development use green roofs, induction stoves, and heat pumps, not natural gas, to help mitigate climate change.
Former Site Plan Review Committee chairman Bill Wolfe, an architect, praised the project but said he hopes the buildings are more forward-looking rather than evoking the Gothic past. The complex could become a zero-energy project featuring solar panels. “Maybe instead of chimneys think of wind turbines,” Wolfe said. “I’d like to see a more forward-looking project.”
Resident Jonathan Hopkins asked what the current parking requirements are for the development. Officials said the current requirement is a generic requirement that doesn’t take into account the fact that the proposed development is within walking distance of downtown. The proposed parking is consistent with other redevelopment projects, officials said.
Resident Felicia Spitz, who lives in the Institute for Advanced Study neighborhood, said she hopes people will walk from the apartment complex into town.
Edgehill Street resident Betsy Brown said it is clear that the people who came up with the concept plan have not walked along Route 206 much.
“You are out of your mind,” Brown said. “This is the most polluted block in the entire town. Have you ever walked on 206? This is the most polluted block in Princeton.”
Brown said she and her husband used to love to walk along Route 206 but now walk on Mercer Street instead because of the fumes from vehicles. The fumes are so bad they both get headaches if they walk along Route 206.
“You have no sense of reality,” Brown said. “You have these absurd pictures of one or two graceful little cars on the road when it’s truck after truck, and because it’s New Jersey, these are old trucks with a lot of diesel and a lot of smoke. If you can clean up 206, then go ahead and build, but if you can’t, you’re creating a death trap. Can you clean up 206? Do you have any realistic ideas? I don’t think you do.”
Asked if a traffic study has been done or the state Department of Transportation has reviewed the proposal, Herring said the state has not been contacted yet.
Resident Dozier Hammond asked if the project could include a higher percentage of affordable housing. “I don’t think this project can work on this, but eventually we will have to go after the missing middle as well, Hammond said.
Resident Michael Floyd said this project and others don’t solve the problems of a lack of diversity and the missing middle class in Princeton. Herring said adding more housing helps narrow the gap. Floyd responded calling it trickle-down economics.
“So much of the missing middle will be missed with all the developments around here,” Floyd said. “They just can’t afford it. Some empty nesters or someone selling a house, they can afford to pay the prices. But most of the missing middle will be missed.”