Princeton’s Draft Master Plan, a substantial 270-page document, was shared with the public on Oct. 31, and a Zoom meeting is scheduled for Nov. 9 to review it, followed by a council meeting for potential adoption, all within an aggressive timeline. This timeline is concerning because it signifies more than a routine update; it’s a transformative plan poised to reshape Princeton’s identity for years to come.
At its core, this plan assumes that Princeton’s stable population of 30,000 should be significantly increased through up-zoning, which involves changing zoning regulations to permit 1-4 dwelling units in specific areas. The document acknowledges that downtown Princeton already has a density exceeding 10,000 people per square mile, on par with Newark and surpassing New Brunswick. The plan aims to intensify this density by allowing taller buildings, reduced setbacks, and fewer parking restrictions.
The concept of the “missing middle” is central to this plan. This term has been used to rebrand “medium density” over the past decade, and while other cities have experimented with similar approaches, outcomes have been mixed, with some studies revealing increased costs, as seen in Chicago. Princeton, however, is not a sprawling metropolis but a small college town known for its desirability. This desirability has led developers to replace affordable housing with premium 4-bedroom homes.
The town’s intention with up-zoning is for homeowners to add units without demolishing existing structures. It’s emphasized that the focus is not on regulating density but on preserving the neighborhood’s character by fitting within the existing framework.
Nonetheless, skepticism abounds regarding the feasibility of this approach. It’s unrealistic to assume that the majority of property owners will start constructing additional housing in their yards for sale or rent. Instead, developers are likely to take advantage of this opportunity, buying, demolishing, and replacing houses with multiple homes, further driving up prices, driven by profit. Despite adding 1,100 new units, high rents have not decreased.
Up-zoning may elevate property values, resulting in higher property taxes and a shift in the tax burden toward up-zoned properties. This could potentially exacerbate gentrification and decrease affordability. Moreover, the plan does not adequately address the impact on infrastructure, quality of life, and the potential environmental consequences of relaxing parking restrictions.
While it is claimed that public input has influenced this plan through various “visioning” exercises and surveys, it appears to echo the desires of a small pro-density and development group that frequented these meetings. This may not accurately represent the interests of the majority who are unfamiliar with up-zoning and the “missing middle” but are likely to be profoundly affected by these changes.
Given the magnitude of this proposed change, its acceptance could unleash uncontrolled development with far-reaching consequences. It is essential that the town allows more time for public discourse and avoids rushing the plan through with a Zoom meeting.
Ultimately, voters should have the opportunity to voice their opinions and influence the direction Princeton takes.