- Planning board members acknowledge the plan may create more diversity in terms of housing types, but not necessarily housing that is affordable.
- Planning board member says there is “a little bit of hysteria about this” and residents should “calm down”
- The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission had little to no opportunity for input on the draft before the public release of the document on Nov. 1 and its representatives noted some inaccuracies.
- Builders and developers love the plan.
- The next meeting is Nov. 30.
- The planning board chair says the town shouldn’t change course on the draft plan. “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Anyone who has lived in Princeton for several years knows the town has been experiencing seismic changes over the past few years when it comes to development, construction, and changing traffic patterns. Princeton University is in the midst of executing its most ambitious expansion plan in decades, a plan that will add almost three million square feet of new buildings to its campuses in Princeton and West Windsor. More than 1,000 new luxury apartments with 20 percent affordable housing set-asides also are gradually coming online. The town will soon have a new hotel and a 300-seat brewery on Palmer Square where the old post office was located. The conversion of Witherspoon Street to a one-way street and the timing of the light at the intersection of Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avene have contributed to frequent gridlock in the center of town.
All of these changes have many residents worried about the future of Princeton, a town that is beloved for its historic character, charm, downtown, and of course its Ivy League university. As the push for more housing density continues, some residents worry about the limitations of the town’s infrastructure. They are skeptical about claims that more density will bring down the price of housing and are concerned about the capacity of the public schools. They also are concerned about the cost to taxpayers because of the increase in the number of housing units and residents, and the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements the governing body has made with developers. Those agreements don’t include payments to the school district, yet the school district will be required to provide for the additional students. This will drive up property taxes, adding further strain to the pocketbooks of residents who are already barely hanging on paying their taxes in Princeton, thus working at odds with the goal of making the town more affordable. Some residents will no longer be able to afford the enormous property taxes.
It’s no surprise that all of these issues have residents carefully scrutinizing the draft of the town’s new master plan. The municipality has been working on the draft plan for a year and a half and held several listening sessions to understand what residents and business owners want. But exactly how all of the feedback was translated into proposed policies and changes was not clear until the 237-page draft master plan document and 166-page appendix finally were released on Nov. 1, the week before the public hearing on the plan. Many residents could not attend the Nov. 9 Zoom meeting because they were away for the long holiday weekend.
A community master plan is meant to be a comprehensive document, adopted by the planning board, that lays out the policies for land use and development in the municipality. The master plan includes details about new development, circulation, hazard mitigation, climate adaptation, conservation, utilities, public facilities, and other aspects of the built and natural environment.
Through its various “elements,” which are distinct and yet interrelated, the master plan
articulates a vision for the community, states assumptions that underpin that vision, and provides goals and policies to achieve that vision. Princeton’s last master plan overhaul was in 1996.
The Nov. 9 hearing
At the start of the public hearing on the draft master plan, Planning Board Chairwoman Louise Wilson said the board probably wouldn’t take action that night and would carry the meeting over until Nov. 30.
More than 165 residents attended the meeting via Zoom, with more than three dozen people speaking during public comment. Planning board members also commented. At times, some planning board members appeared disengaged, angry, tired, or disappointed during the four-hour meeting. One elected official who sits on the planning board appeared to be texting for most of the meeting.
Residents were unable to see who the other residents were who were listening to the Zoom meeting unless a resident spoke during public comment. Wilson occasionally announced how many residents were on Zoom.
Questions abound about the master plan as a guide
Princeton Planning Director Justin Lesko opened the meeting by presenting an overview of the plan. He said there is no appetite in the community for upzoning and said the land use map that is included in the plan is meant to provide guidance when ordinances are drafted for new zoning.
“The plan certainly does not recommend allowing for units on lots across the board, as some have interpreted it. There are jurisdictions that call for upzoning like that, but we didn’t find an appetite for it from the community here,” Lesko said. “And we haven’t recommended it in the plan. The land use plan map is to be used to create ordinances or give guidance to those ordinances with strategies to provide homeowners with additional choices in what they do with their property, though there’s no mandate to do anything with your property at all.”
Lesko said upzoning will be an incremental change, and that the master plan is not saying do any of that across the board. The plan features “concentric development” outwards from the center of town, and some numbers are based on “what is on the ground today.” The map is a starting point that Lesko said is “highly reflective” of existing densities today. He said the master plan is a guide when creating ordinances. “When the time comes to create those ordinances, this will be the first reference as to what should go in each of those areas,” Lesko said.
Wilson said the master plan does not change zoning and that the implementation of the master plan will be in the hands of the Princeton Council.
Residents are still concerned about the land use map and plan in spite of all of those assurances, because, for example, one of the main questions during planning board hearings when the board reviews a proposed development is whether the proposal is consistent with the municipality’s master plan. The plan is an important document that is referred to often when officials make decisions about planning and zoning.
“My understanding is that this is a reference document. What’s in here will appear or will influence zoning,” resident Mike Head said. “We cannot operate on a ‘trust us’ basis on this subject. These issues and differences should be resolved before this plan is adopted.”
Head said one master plan slide proposes the removal of high open space gross floor area restrictions and shows a historic building on Edgehill Street as being multifamily housing. The building is in a historic district. “We’ve been told that the idea is really for homes not to be demolished, but for an additional home to be added (to properties). That is not really being confirmed by what’s being said,” Head said. “It’s also stated that this is targeted zoning. Well, if you call the whole of Princeton, Princeton, and then you say well we’ve just targeted a small area, but the area that is targeted is a whole borough, Riverside, and the Institute area…on the map it shows the areas as two to eight units per acre, which is substantially denser than what we have today.”
Resident A.J. Smith said his little one-block street was once the home to many famous architects. Now many of the wonderful houses on the street have been torn down. “You say there is no formal zoning, blah blah blah… When I look at our neighborhood, and what the caption says today, it says eight houses per acre on a one-block street that has nothing nothing like that now. And so I just want to understand what this really means. Is it conceivable? It seems that it should be out of the question in that neighborhood. One of the things that makes Princeton unique is all the neighborhoods have their own character. And so this zoning is going to destroy them.”
Resident Don Denny noted that the plan was last changed in 1996 and residents could be living with a new plan for quite some time.
“Members of the town staff and others have repeatedly said in public forums including this evening that the master plan is just a guide and does not change existing ordinances. But isn’t that the point? The master plan once finalized, is both the guide and becomes the justification for future changes in, for example, zoning. We can’t trivialize this,” Denny said.
“Let’s be very sure that what is approved here is what we want and that it achieves our collective goals. The cost of living in Princeton is a real concern as reflected in the master planning survey. And there’s a theme in the master plan, making housing affordable for the missing middle and expanding affordable housing are explicit goals of the master plan, for which we are incentivizing private developers,” Denny said. “Why do we think that promoting dramatically increased housing density will decrease our cost of living or the cost of housing? There’s a tremendous demand for housing in Princeton, and our property values are high as are our rental costs and new developments. Princeton is a desirable address for many reasons. It will take a long time for the pent-up demand to live in Princeton to be filled before market prices decrease. In the meantime, the adequacy of the master plan for denser housing throughout town will primarily increase the development of market-rate housing, to the benefit of the developers, but to no benefit of the town at large.”
Denny asked why the town would want more density at the expense of increased traffic, higher school costs, and a more urban environment. He also said the master plan pays too little attention to historic preservation and is too willing to trade density for the historic character of the town. “We’ve already seen this with the creation of affordable housing overlays that override existing zoning such as the affordable housing overlay where historic corner properties in the Jugtown Historic District are included in the overlay and may be grossly overdeveloped,” Denny said.
Planning Board member David Cohen said the plan suggests adding more dwelling units on an individual piece of property.
“We’re not talking about more square footage, we’re just saying instead of one great big house…a house would actually have four dwelling units in it, or six, depending on what neighborhood it’s in, in a way that’s appropriate to the neighborhood,” Cohen said. “I really wanted to emphasize that we’re not talking about increasing the amount of building. We’re talking about increasing the number of dwelling units.”
Diversifying Princeton’s housing stock – will it lead to real affordability?
Lesko said one goal of the plan is to increase the diversity of the town’s housing stock, which will allow for different house price points to address the housing crisis.
“We will not be able to build ourselves out of it alone, and we don’t intend to do that,” Lesko said. “Additionally, the recommendations are intended to keep Princeton’s neighborhoods looking like they do now with options to create ordinances for things like multiple units and existing structures…rather than a developer just coming in buying a home, tearing it down, and rebuilding like we see all across town, this approach would also not make a change to the lot outside of just the building’s footprint, which saves trees and green space. Other options included in the recommendations are to allow for additional small lot single-family homes where appropriate or make changes to the accessory dwelling unit ordinance, and things like that. This plan very much aims to ‘green as we grow’.”
The town has many single detached homes, as well as larger mid-rise apartment buildings. Lesko said the town does not have so-called missing middle housing, which he clarified is about building types, not affordability. Townhomes, for example, are prohibited in many of the town’s residential zones. Other barriers to a more diverse housing stock are higher parking restrictions for duplexes, or regulations that only allow three or fewer units per building.
“One thing that we noted in the plan is that since 2013, units with four or five or above bedrooms have grown as a percent of our total housing stock, while two and three-bedroom units have all decreased as a percent of our stock, with the highest number decreasing among three bedrooms, which again is evidence of all those ranches you see that are then torn down and turned into bigger five-plus bedroom houses,” Lesko said. “It’s not surprising housing costs continue to rise and Princeton.”
Lesko said looking at the plan and maps, residents will see the pyramid that shows the mobility hierarchy. “What this is about is prioritizing modes of transportation that are more ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable than gas-powered vehicles that need to be parked,” Lesko said. “And we’re fully aware that this is a lofty goal.”
Resident Dozier Hammond, an affordable housing advocate, said his main concern is making Princeton affordable for a substantial number of working-class and middle-class residents.
“I think Princeton should grow and that smart, measured growth will have many diverse benefits to the town,” Hammond said. “We should do everything we can to make a large proportion of new housing affordable, primarily for traditional affordable housing residents but also to the missing middle. This can be done by expanding inclusionary zoning to 25 or perhaps 35 or more percent of new developments going to traditional affordable housing, and perhaps five to 15% for the missing middle, which is 80 to 200% of the regional median income for those who don’t know that figure.”
Hammond said Princeton needs more two and three-bedroom houses, and this would help slow down or even stop housing price increases.
“We need to explore ways to do a Princeton preference for some of the affordable units that go beyond our obligations, to more directly help those who have been pushed out,” Hammond said. “Accessory dwellings should be promoted and supported as a way for homeowners to afford to stay in place. But we should also subsidize some of them further so that they can provide affordable rent. And we should use multiple municipal lands and other partners’ land which is donated or substantially subsidized.”
Hammond said he also agrees with building height limits being raised, though in a measured way, and parking requirements being reduced. He also called for an expansion of public transit, bike paths, and walkway improvements.
Resident Evan Anderson, speaking on behalf of Princeton Future, praised the master plan, saying it would welcome new growth, increase the supply and diversity of housing, and maintain a well-defined walkable town center.
Princeton University graduate student Matt Mleczko said he studies housing policy and represents a new organization called Princeton Grows. His group supports the master plan. He said the town should accommodate growth with sensible zoning and land use reforms and remove barriers like minimum parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, floor area ratio regulations, and building height restrictions.
“These are sensible and long overdue reforms many people support,” Mleczko said, adding that smaller homes require less energy. He said multifamily housing should be built on Princeton University’s Butler Tract, lower Alexander Road, and surface parking lots in Princeton like the one on Park Place behind CVS.
Resident Karen Blu said she would like to see the town build affordable housing and avoid developers. “If we want to have really affordable housing and we want to keep it affordable. We have to do what New York City did and build our own affordable housing and make sure that it stays that way,” she said. “(Then) there’s no sort of 25-year limit or anything like that. And the town can control that and see that it stays really affordable. That is a way to do it, rather than incentivizing developers to do a little bit in their big developments.”
Blu said there is a huge amount of housing being built in and around Princeton. “We have huge amounts of housing that are coming in. Will they be affordable? Probably not. As someone else said, demand here is high, and that’s going to drive up the price, no matter how small no matter how cheap, no matter how well intended,” Blu said. “It’s extraordinary to me to think of how many houses are being proposed as a possibility, even for lots. What happens to the trees and bushes and the green space, what happens to impermeable surfaces, what happens to all these values that we pay lip service to in principle?”
According to Blu, someone at the Institute for Advanced Study collapsed and it took almost an hour to get the person help because of how bad traffic was.
Lesko said the town can’t build affordable housing itself because it would cost too much money.
Cohen claimed increasing the number of dwelling units will guarantee that developers build smaller units that will be more affordable. “I hear the skepticism that those small units will truly be affordable. And for some people, they won’t. Maybe they won’t be affordable for a janitor or young police officer, but at least they might be affordable for a doctor. Because right now, even our doctors can’t afford to live in Princeton,” Cohen said. “I think the idea of trying to create smaller dwelling units that will be affordable to a broader range of the people, that is what we would we’d like to see in Princeton. It is really what we were shooting for as we tried to craft the element.”
Resident Julie Zimmerman said it would be great if Princeton had more middle-income housing, but she has her doubts it will end up working out that way. She talked about the giant McMansion that is being built next door to her, which will be towering over her house.
“I’m screwed. There’s nowhere else for people to build big mansions around me, but I’m very interested in what comes out of this to maintain our town going forward,” Zimmerman said. “Even if our goal is to increase the stock of affordable housing, I have my doubts that changing from allowing one unit to four units is going to do that.”
Zimmerman said developers will either continue to build McMansions or will put more units on a property and charge a premium price for each unit. “While the goal is to have retirees stay on their property and build an accessory dwelling unit and fund their retirement or make it more affordable for the existing owner, I get the impression that it’s going to be more teardowns,” Zimmerman said. “Units that are too expensive are going up. So I have my doubts that that’s even doable to get to that affordable thing. I’m skeptical.”
Zimmerman also said developers will think of things town officials have not and will find loopholes, as they did with the town’s accessory dwelling unit ordinance. Zimmerman said builders will be salivating because they will be able to start building four houses on properties.
“People don’t really understand the zoning for this huge house next to me. Everyone says to me, how did they get that built?” Zimmerman said. “The builders are more clever than we are. And I think they’re going to be able to exploit whatever opportunities they’re able to see that exist under this new master plan. How will zoning and building ordinances ensure the streetscapes of our neighborhoods evolve in an acceptable way?”
Resident James Bash also expressed concerns about teardowns and how the new master plan will address the problem.
“People wonder where the missing middle has gone in our town. The answer is it’s been torn down house by house by house over the decades,” Bash said. “The more affordable homes in Princeton — modest, older, or even historic homes 100 years or older — continue to get demolished and turned into $2 million spec houses by developers. We live in a capitalist economy driven by a profit motive that is inescapable. And what happens is developers with cash in hand outbid all individual buyers to win the property, only to raze it to the ground. In other words, that more affordable home is worth more dead than alive. You see this happening all the time, and it runs counter to the objective of increasing affordable housing.”
Bash said Princeton will continue to lose the smaller and medium-sized homes that some middle-class families can potentially afford to buy. While the goal of increasing affordable housing is good and necessary, he said the municipality’s recent approach is to focus on affordable rentals, which do not build equity for the very people who need it. He asked how the proposed master plan would affect teardowns.
Cohen said teardowns will continue whether rules are changed or not.
“Those small single-family homes are worth more dead than alive,” Cohen said. ” It’s an unfortunate reality of real estate in Princeton right now. So the question is, what do they get replaced with? And we’re absolutely laser-focused on trying to make sure that those teardowns get replaced with smaller, more affordable alternatives when those teardowns happen.”
Resident Alex Randall asked what is considered affordable.
“The house I live in at the moment was an affordable house when it was built. It would not be affordable to a lot of people who we are now talking about making affordable housing for,” Randall said. “No matter how affordable you make, the demand for housing in Princeton will drive the price of those properties. The idea that we should have affordable housing so that a police officer, a teacher, or somebody who works in a downtown store can afford to live in town is an illusion. No matter what you build, it is going to become expensive over time, and this affordability notion is a slippery slope.”
Randall said he is concerned about too much development ruining Princeton.
“It’s a spectacularly beautiful place,” Randall said. “It seems mindless to me to throw away the natural beauty of the colonial architecture. I’m speaking specifically about trying to build four-story buildings in what we call Jugtown. It’s crazy.”
Resident Robert Sheppard said he is concerned about what will happen to Princeton.
“Developers will be given the legal backing to basically push through anything that they can push through in order to maximize building in any of the neighborhoods that are going to allow it,” Sheppard said.
Residents Michael Bell and Jane McCarty said data presented by Lesko shows that Princeton is far from affordable.
“There’s a huge disparity between the income and housing prices. Princeton is expensive because people consider it a desirable place to live,” Bell said. “A free housing market will encourage and allow prices to rise until there are simply too few buyers. But if you look at real estate sales, you will see the number of cash buyers here indicates that people are very willing to pay in Princeton. Without subsidies, housing here will always be unaffordable, unless you decrease its attractiveness by making the town less attractive, for example, by building high-density housing everywhere. Developers, by themselves, will always build the housing that maximizes their profit. They only build affordable units by building a far greater number of market-rate units that subsidize the others. So you have to build vast numbers of houses to build affordable housing.”
Bell said there is no real solution to the problem that does not involve a subsidy or municipal housing of some kind. “We cannot leave it to the free market to develop this. And there are subsidies that occur already to builders in the form of enormous tax breaks for them for development. But we actually end up with very few affordable houses as a result, and a much greater number of market-rate units…It’s going to be difficult to solve this in a way that preserves this town as a desirable place to live…The issue of adding density to places that already have high density also does not seem very fair in the overall scheme of how the town should develop.”
Keep calm and carry on (with the master plan)
Planning Board Member Zenon Tech-Czarny, who is an environmental planner, said he served on the land use subcommittee and had some say in how the plan was developed. One of the things that was debated was how the higher density zones should be, and there was some compromise on the issue. Some people wanted to do it for the whole town. The committee tried to focus on the core of the town where people can walk and bike to amenities. He said it was the right decision.
“I think that there is a little bit of hysteria over this,” Tech-Czarny said. He then said he thinks the proposed master plan is not going to lead to opening the floodgates to a complete redevelopment of town or the complete teardown of every building in order to build four-unit buildings or 20-unit buildings per acre.
“I think that people should calm down a little bit about that,” Tech-Czarny said. “One thing that I see is that the land use plan is meant to be simplified. You know, it’s not supposed to be super prescriptive. That comes much later. And it’s going to be an extensive process, almost as long as this master plan took. It’s going to take a while to develop zoning. I think that there’s still plenty of time to share people’s feedback on how the zoning will look in that core (of town).”
He said he thinks the zoning should be a more”form-based” code that can provide more prescriptive recommendations for what type of densities officials would like to see happen where. He said the town has ordinances to keep the size of buildings from being the full size of the lot “or whatever people are afraid of.” He then clarified what “missing middle” housing is.
“I don’t think that missing middle housing is necessarily going to create middle-income housing or affordable housing. It’s about a diversity in housing types,” Tech-Czarny said. “I think that the people who think that this is going to create affordable housing by making smaller units…I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to happen. As we know, that there’s there’s a very strong market here in Princeton for housing. Homes, even smaller homes, go for quite a lot of money. But I think that you might not have a million-dollar home or family home, you might have, two $500,000 homes, which will be smaller units.”
Tech-Czarny then said smaller homes produce fewer students. “For those people that are afraid of the schools being overwhelmed, who knows how things are going to play out, but logic would suggest that actually, having smaller units would actually be less of a contribution to the schools,” he said.
Resident Wassim Abida and others challenged Tech-Czarny and Cohen’s statements, saying there seems to be an assumption that more diverse housing and more affordable housing will happen organically while preserving the historic character of the town and its neighborhoods.
“The board insists that they are not mandating increased construction,” Abida said. “Market forces are obvious and in plain sight. There will be more profit to be made from multiple dwelling units than single dwellings. This will be an incentive to maximize building.”
Abida said newly constructed single homes on an acre of land in the Riverside neighborhood are being listed for up to $2.5 million. A developer could easily put four homes on the acre and sell each one for $1.5 million, a large profit. “These are realistic numbers if you look at Zillow or Redfin,” Abida said. “Developers will outbid individual buyers. There will be more teardowns, increasing substantially the population, and increasing the (required) services.”
The already high property taxes will go up for neighboring homes because the land values will increase in those neighborhoods. “Sadly we heard a planning board member say ‘calm down’. I don’t think this is respectful,” Abida said. “This is a critical issue that will impact all residents. It doesn’t seem to be a democratic process.”
Head said house prices and high taxes deter buyers in Princeton, but despite these factors, the demand for housing exceeds the supply. He said the term missing middle is a little bit confusing. It sounds like it is addressing affordability. “All it’s doing is saying we’re going to have more density and we’re going to achieve that through different types of houses. Once people understand that, they’ll they’ll understand what’s going to happen because we know at the moment, developers aggressively outbid individuals for smaller homes. Then they demolish them and replace them with new four-bedroom homes or five-bedroom homes.”
According to master plan documents, Head said the teardowns now represent 41% of all units in Princeton, up 12% in the past 10 years. Multifamily housing also has contributed to large rent increases across Princeton. Rents are up 46% in two years.
“This needs more discussion and more consideration,” Head said. “The public needs to be involved in adopting whatever is in the final plan. But right now, it’s not. It’s not ready for prime time.”
Resident Cathy Knight said the draft master plan seems to document an exponential increase in the density of the town.
“I’m a big fan of additional housing and certainly affordable units. But I don’t think this plan is well crafted to achieve the additional density and expanded housing opportunities for the missing middle without severely affecting what makes Princeton such a special place,” Knight said. “I don’t believe the land use portion of the document is setting goals that reflect the desires of the community at large. Certainly, these changes were not supported in the listening sessions I attended. Most of the land use goals are to increase density, which will help developers. There is no mention of historic preservation in the land use goals.”
Knight said a sample neighborhood zone where she lives allows for four to 20 dwelling units per acre, includes the entire residential center of town where the tree streets, Jackson Witherspoon, and Jugtown are, and extends past the shopping center. “I know that this is only a guide and this is not legislative yet, but it’s a guide. I’m very concerned about the direction that it’s going. These proposed changes will incentivize developers to tear down homes and build the maximum allowable building envelopes in order to sell these units at a profit. In the past, they’ve torn down lower-cost housing and built larger homes. Now they can build three or four units on a lot. Is there any proof that the developers will build small entry-level homes that will be affordable middle housing? Is there a concern about the effect on the property taxes if the lot next door can sell four units at a million dollars each? That will increase the neighborhood land value and possibly raise taxes, potentially driving on some of our neighbors with these regulations.”
Resident Carolyn Yerkes took issue with Tech-Czarny’s comments about hysteria and the need to calm down, saying her neighbors and fellow community members expressed reasonable concerns.
“I don’t agree that their concerns are hysterical or that they should be told to calm down. If residents are reacting in a way that you don’t expect them to, perhaps that’s not a sign that they’re reacting in the wrong way. But perhaps that’s a signal that the plan hasn’t been framed well,” Yerkes said. “The zoning issues are really at the core because they’re going to affect everything else in here…What I think we all need to keep at the very top of mind as citizens of Princeton is our schools, whether or not we have children in them. I have two children in the public schools. Many of the people who have spoken tonight have children in the public schools. But I think that all the residents, even those who don’t have children in the public schools, would agree that the impact of this plan on our schools should always be top of mind.”
Yerkes went on to say she disagrees with Tech-Czarny that smaller homes will necessarily mean fewer students. Wilson interrupted her commenting in the public forum, telling her to confine her comments to the plan and not make anything personal. They then debated whether Tech-Czarny’s comments about residents were personal or not.
“I understand how many times we’ve been told tonight that the plan doesn’t actually dictate zoning, but the plan has a direct effect on zoning and it’s a future guide for zoning,” Yerkes said. “It’s just a matter of semantics to separate those two, and I would hope that any future question and answer periods would address that very important connection.”
Planning Board member Tim Quinn, a former councilman who is also the director of communications at the public library, gave Tech-Czarny advice during the meeting after some of the residents’ comments.
“The quickest way to have someone not calm down is to tell them to calm down,” Quinn said.
Tech-Czarny apologized for his comments, saying he didn’t mean for them to sound the way they came off.
“I sometimes put my foot in my mouth and say things that don’t come out right. I didn’t mean to offend anyone and I’m sorry if I did,” Tech-Czarny said. “I understand that people are concerned about change. Something like this can be scary. I share a lot of the concerns. It’s kind of ironic because I brought up a lot of the things that people were mentioning in our discussion. What I was just simply trying to say was that the future land use plan isn’t going to be turned into zoning. What is put in that plan, that density, doesn’t mean that then immediately that whole area is going to become zoned for that. There is going to be a process that will kind of be fine-tuning what actually is appropriate for where.”
Tech-Czarny said smaller units might not be considered affordable housing but will cost less than large single-family homes. He said if enough density is built, a development will trigger the town’s affordable housing requirements. Town regulations require developments of five units or more to include a 20% affordable housing set aside, meaning one of five units would be an affordable unit.
Resident Bridget Alsdorf expressed concerns about greenery and traffic and said luxury developers will benefit most from the master plan.
“I don’t think we should pretend smaller denser housing will be affordable. Also don’t think we should pretend people who live close to the center of town aren’t still going to use their cars to get around much of the time. I don’t think that’s a cynical point of view. I think that that’s clear-eyed realism. I also don’t think people are hysterical to have concerns about these issues,” Alsdorf said. “One of my chief concerns is the impact on the public schools, which are already dealing with overcrowding. I was concerned not to see this addressed in the master plan’s many pages. The document states at one point that Princeton’s excellent public schools are what keeps housing in the municipality in higher demand.”
Alsdorf challenged assumptions about what type of housing units will lead to greater increases in school children. She noted that a link in a master plan footnote to a 2018 Rutgers University study about the number of children two-bedroom units generate is broken.
“The summary provided in the document essentially says two-bedroom units don’t bring in as many kids as larger houses, ergo the increase in enrollments will likely be small,” Alsdorf said. “I’d really like to see more data to back that up, because maybe if you build five two-bedroom homes that will not bring in as many kids as building five four-bedroom homes if you’re comparing them one to one, but if you bring in 300 two-bedroom units into a town, that is still going to bring in a fair amount of kids because a lot of people move here for the schools. So citing that one record study to say don’t worry about enrollments. I’m not convinced.”
Alsdorf said it appears that there’s a tension in the master plan proposal between the stated importance of the public schools as a town jewel, and a disregard for how the schools will manage if the plan is enacted.
“Again, overcrowding is already a problem for our schools. It’s expensive and time-consuming to address that,” Alsdorf said. “And this affects everyone from a tax perspective, not just those of us with kids.”
Wendy Mager, the president of the Friends of Princeton Open Space, said the conservation, open space, and recreation element of the draft master plan adopt an excellent goal of creating a connected greenway around the outer edge of the municipality. But she said the map omits important lands on the Princeton Ridge east of Route 206 and west of the Autumn Hill reservation on the northern boundary with Montgomery Township.
“These lands include multiple features elsewhere stated to be worthy of special protection, such as forests, wetlands, stream corridors, habitat for species of special concern, and steep slopes. The pink conceptual Greenway shown on the map should I believe be extended northward to include this area,” Mager said, adding that the town should reestablish an open space advisory committee to guide efforts to develop criteria to assist the planning board and council in reviewing opportunities to acquire open space and recreation land. Mager also said the plan should not allow for the cutting of mature trees except as necessary to protect human safety, “nor the misguided manipulation of forest succession to attempt to turn the forest into a different kind of habitat.”
Mager said she agrees that maintenance and stewardship of already-preserved open space is important, but that there is an urgent need to preserve land that faces development pressures. “We should not lose out on opportunities to protect forests and open space because of a misguided priority given to maintaining that which we already have preserved,” Mager said.
Resident Janet Stern commented on the community forestry management plan and expressed concerns about the town’s tree canopy. The master plan says the tree canopy continues to grow. “In fact, it’s not continuing to grow,” Stern said, noting that the tree canopy has decreased by 16% between 2016 and 2019. “Tree removals continued to outpace plantings by about two to one,” Stern said, calling on the town to “protect mature trees that perform all the services and provide all the benefits that we now know makes them a municipality’s single best weapon against climate crises.”
Pallavi Nuka of the Friends of Herrontown Woods said she appreciates that the plan advocates for concentrating economic and residential activity in the downtown area and setting up multiple nodes of economic activity. “I think that’s an excellent way to continue to conserve the areas that are outside of the center and maintain those areas as parks and open spaces that allow the community to breathe,” she said.
Nuka said it is challenging to balance conservation goals and historic preservation goals with the goals of increasing affordable housing.
“I am a strong advocate for affordable housing in town. I think that where and exactly how it’s built is going to be an ongoing conversation for a number of years,” Nuka said. “I think that it’s important for the town to be able to provide housing for our students at the university for postdocs, for our public school teachers, for the many people who work at the businesses that we all frequent. It’s important to have a town that reflects economic diversity, as well as racial and ethnic diversity.”
Resident Molly Sheppard said the plan does not ensure that the character of the town will be preserved. She said the land-use element doesn’t account for the fact that many neighborhoods in Princeton already have major flooding issues.
Disconnect between master plan and Princeton Historic Preservation Commission
Resident Roger Shatzkin, who serves on the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission, said the list of historic sites included in the draft master plan as preservation priorities doesn’t reflect the priorities of the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission.
“We’re not exactly sure how the list came to be. We’re not sure how some proposed sites from the previous master plan, such as a potential tree streets historic district, were not included in the new plan. That’s not the only one,” Shatzkin said. “Finally, we would have greatly appreciated having this discussion prior to tonight. We just did not have the opportunity and it’s something we think we could resolve quickly had we had such a discussion.”
Christine Lewandoski, a professional planner who serves on the Princeton Historical Preservation Commission and was the historic preservation officer for Princeton Township and the consolidated municipality for 26 years, said a fair amount of mistakes are included in the draft master plan regarding historic sites. “There are major omissions for historic sites on the National Register of Historic Places. The maps should be corrected,” Lewandoski said. She also – echoed Shatzkin, asking for a meeting with the master plan subcommittee. The commission doesn’t agree with the subcommittee’s choices of The Princeton Ice Company, the Graduate College, and a few other sites as preservation priorities.
Resident Clifford Zink said the preservation provisions of the draft master plan are amazingly weak.
“In some places, they’re confusing and inaccurate, and they need some serious adjusting to balance anticipated new growth in order to maintain the most important aspects of Princeton,” Zink said. “In the land use goals, preservation is only mentioned in goal three under the heading t0 remove barriers to increase residential density.”
Zink said a land use goal to protect and preserve historic sites and districts to ensure that development follows local and national preservation guidelines should be included in the master plan. “Historic preservation goals…should specifically include adopting design guidelines that follow the Secretary of the Interior standards for the treatment of historic properties, as is standard in other historic towns, but this is nowhere mentioned in the document,” Zink said. He noted that the section of the plan that discusses the potential impact of other elements of the master plan on historic preservation does not identify a single impact.
“We have already seen examples of impacts on historic preservation, notably on Tulane Street and also on Jugtown,” Zink said. “This section (of the master plan) needs to identify the potential impact that all the proposed new development could have on historic sites.”
Zink said the planning board and municipal staff members should meet with the town’s historic preservation officer and the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission to review recommendations.
Cohen said the master plan historic preservation subcommittee “really wanted” feedback from the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission.
“We took a stab at trying to identify some of the highest-value historic districts and the ones that were most at risk. When the subcommittee put together that list, we took off some of the districts that were in there previously, because when you have 50 or 60 — I think that was the number that was actually requested by the Historic Preservation Commission — when you have that many recommended districts, the end result is you don’t get any actual historic districts because it’s too much to try and to actually work,” Cohen said. “It’s a lengthy process. We’re trying to narrow it down to the most important ones and hopefully actually get them done.”
Christopher Barr of the Ridgeview Conservancy and fellow resident Geoffrey Allen both asked that two historic sites along the Great Road and Cherry Valley Road be included in the hostoric element of the master plan. Barr said preservationists purchased an 8.7-acre conservation easement for land along the Great Road and purchased 4.5 acres of land along Cherry Valley Road.
Cohen said the master plan identifies sites in need of historic preservation, not sites already preserved.
Emily Escott, who bought a house in Jugtown due to the charm of the historic district, said the goal of affordable housing is admirable and is rooted in good intentions but is not going to work.
“I feel as though the historic preservation aspect is being brushed aside, which is very concerning,” Escott said, noting that the approval of an overlay zone allowing for four-story buildings in Jugtown was passed quietly during COVID.
Builders and developers love the plan
Joshua Zinder, an architect and developer in Princeton, called the plan a significant improvement and said zoning should be changed in Princeton rather than having properties grandfathered in.
“I do believe that you’re missing one element under the economic development section based on the current ordinances, overlays, and plans, and that is the encouragement of Witherspoon Street as a secondary commercial corridor within town,” Zinder said.
Developer Aubrey Haines, president of Experience Princeton, an organization led by developers that runs the town’s Special Improvement District, praised the plan.
“The plan paints a bright future where generations of people who live work and play here will continue to enjoy what has been so great about the town while showing a path to solving some of the town’s most glaring problems,” Haines said. “(A lack of) Affordable housing is hurting the town. Almost everyone that works here lives somewhere else. Their commute is expensive and time-consuming and bad for the environment. The master plan provides significant opportunities to address this critical issue.”
Haines said parking has been a perennial problem and recent efforts have not yielded results.
“Experience Princeton is partnering with the town to help solve this issue so that visitors residents and workers have easier access to parking,” Haines said. “The master plan addresses this and we continue to encourage solutions. Public transportation is an important solution to many problems. It will help the economy the town and take pressure off parking. We know this will take time but having a plan to enable this critical element is key. A master plan provides that path forward to a much more sustainable future.”
Builder Tom Pinneo said the master plan is “breathtaking in its scope and vision and lays out in excruciatingly and agonizingly painful detail” the often competing interests that lie before the town. He called the plan equal parts moonshot and balancing act.
“A moonshot is what we need. And if we’re going to succeed in our mission it is going to be by building more housing in town, that I believe has three main benefits — one, to make Princeton more accessible and affordable to those who want to live here but can’t; two to make some real effort to wean ourselves from our cars and slow the spread of development in the car-dependent perimeter of town, where we should be focusing our conservation efforts; three, to make Princeton more vibrant, and induce a demand for goods and services that derails what I fear is our current course to securing our position as the gift shop and food court of central New Jersey.”
Historic preservation needs to be strengthened, Pinneo said, “by concentrating our efforts and polishing the gems, rather than diluting our efforts, as I fear we do too often by sprinkling historic pixie dust across too many oldish but certainly not historic buildings,”
Pinneo said he rejects that affordability is an illusion. “That’s a cynical and frankly lazy point of view,” he said. Pinneo did agree that the Jugtown overlay needs revisiting. “We should downshift and take care to get those details right,” Pinneo said, adding that the town should “hear both the voices of those who are already in Princeton, and call it home, and anticipate the voices of those who wish to.”
Pinneo said there would be unintended consequences, but those should be examined in the area of implementation, not the vision and policy master planning process.
“Look, if you don’t want more density, this is not your master plan,” Pinneo said. “But if we’re going to successfully navigate the complex challenges ahead of us, I believe this nearly 300-page document provides us with broad contours of what we need to keep top of mind to begin the long work of implementation.
Resident Jo Butler, a former councilwoman, asked several questions during public comment but was never given any answers.
“It’s condescending to tell people to calm down when you drop a 270-page document and you give them 10 days to look at it,” Butler said. “I do appreciate the great amount of work that went into this document, and I’m sorry to have to rush to shortcomings, but we’re time-constrained. I feel like this meeting is something less than democratic. We can’t see who’s in attendance and we have no way of connecting with people. None of us have the ability to read the room, including the planners. I’ve heard from a number of speakers I wish I could have applauded as the former liaison to historic preservation. I’m appalled at the lack of their participation in this process.”
Butler said she confirmed that no one on the master plan steering committee was from the Johnson Park School District area. She noted that the area includes several other educational institutions like Stuart Country Day School and the Hun School, as well as the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton Seminary, the Princeton Battlefield, and the Mercer Hill Historic District.
“Overlooking this gigantic geographic area and not having representation is a mistake,” Butler said. “If this were 2013 and we were coming out of the recession, I would understand that extreme focus on economic development, but our central business district is largely thriving. I encourage you to try to find a parking spot on any given Saturday. What I heard businesses say at the listing meeting was that they need better parking, better traffic flow, and their customers from the north to return to town. I don’t see any accommodations or encouragement for former township residents to shop in town.”
The plan also overlooks critical developments at Princeton University, Butler said. There is almost no mention of the university in the plan
“Princeton University is going to open a world-class art museum that will draw lots of visitors to town,” Butler said. “Montgomery is going to build a very large seemingly upscale shop shopping area just north of Princeton on Route 206. We largely ignore our neighbors in this plan, but the shopping center could have major implications for vehicular traffic in Princeton…We have a little bit of a moat around Princeton. I guess we’re trying to build an emerald necklace, but we can’t pull up a drawbridge. We will have a hotel that will open right in the heart of the busiest section and intersection in town at Nassau and University Place. I don’t see a mention that we have a 300-seat brewpub that will open shortly right in the center of town. We have 500 to 600 luxury apartments under construction that are not filled.”
Butler said the town has undercalculated the number of school-aged children the plan will create. “We seemingly have no plans to substantially increase classroom capacity or playing fields,” Butler said. “Instead, we keep making acres unavailable for any development at all, even active recreation.”
Butler said the plan creates environmental injustice, providing residents outside of the center of town with more green space while residents in the center of town lose it.
“We cannot create more density in town no matter how gentle the infill is and not destroy our true critical tree canopy,” Butler said. “I feel like it’s wishful thinking to believe that motorized vehicles will not be around.”
She also asked whether the tax assessor was consulted about the master plan and the impact of multiple units on properties. “I think we’re going to see a huge shift in the tax burden,” Butler said.
Resident Michael Floyd also questioned why the burden in terms of density and development is being placed on areas that are already feeling the stress of development and density.
“You take a dense neighborhood like Witherspoon Jackson or the tree streets, you know. They’re like one of three people that has a knapsack that has 60 pounds in it. And two other people have 20 and 10 pounds. And you’ve got 20 more pounds to distribute. So you put them in the knapsack with the 60 in it already.”
Floyd said the town has been involved with exclusionary zoning forever.
“I’m just amazed that you did come and say put the density where it’s already over-dense and where the lots weren’t really developed in a really sensible way,” Floyd said.
Floyd, a zoning board member who is a lifelong resident and used to work for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, also pointed out errors in the master plan regarding the Black population. According to the plan, the Black population in Princeton increased by 16% between 2010 and 2021. Floyd pointed out that the 2010 census numbers used were only for the former borough, while the 2021 numbers were for the entire municipality, combining the township and borough. “We all know the Black population didn’t increase by 16%,” Floyd said. Many Black families actually had to move out of Princeton after the last property revaluation when their taxes more than doubled.
Floyd questioned whether the Rutgers study that was cited in the report regarding smaller homes generating fewer school children was accurate.
“I was wondering if the school system was consulted regarding that ratio,” Floyd said. “I read that study a couple of years ago. If the school district agrees, fine. If not, I suggest taking that out or using a range. I actually don’t think that number is accurate. I think there’s a methodology flaw.”
Resident Emily Escott said she is concerned about the public school system. “I’m very concerned about the expected growth without an actual plan for these additional students. Saying that you were speaking to the school board is simply not enough. Traffic in town is awful. The strain on Route 27 is already too great. Tractor trailers are too big and they can’t pass in many places in town. It is simply a hazard, and having more people is nonsensical,” Escott said. “This is a massive plan. I do appreciate the work that went into this. We residents are not being alarmist, and please don’t call us that. We are simply concerned and want to have input, clarity, and studies on this plan. Ten days to review this plan was too short and offensive.”
Resident Margaret Depenbrock said she has read a myriad of opinion pieces and local publications discussing the master plan.
“One of those pieces recently suggested that many of the concerns raised by residents are too alarmist in nature, that we should just calm down, and that the changes set forth in the master plan may not even be large enough to notice. Well to the planning board, the Borough Council, and with my apologies to Taylor Swift, I simply can’t calm down,” Depenbrock said. “I can’t calm down because it was the planning board and the same external planners utilized to create this master plan proposal that included, in the depths of COVID, five historic buildings in the Jugtown district to be included in the affordable housing overlay allowing for 45 foot high buildings with zero setback requirements at the treacherous intersection of Harrison and Nassau Street. So you’ll understand my skepticism.”
“I can’t calm down because I’m a taxpayer in this municipality. My taxes have more than doubled in my 20 years of owning a home here while services in that same period have diminished,” Depenbrock said. “How will we pay for the new schools? How will the emergency emergency services and other infrastructure requirements be paid for? We’re told that zoning is not changing overnight, but residents need to understand that it is this document that future zoning ordinances and variances will be guided by. I also raise an issue with the timing of this public hearing, coinciding with the school break, with many families traveling over this long weekend, preventing their participation. At a minimum more time is needed for the community to assess the impact of the massive changes being proposed and an analysis of their downstream impact.”
Public comment probably won’t result in substantive changes
At the very end of the meeting, Wilson discussed the next steps with the rest of the planning board. The public hearing will continue on Nov. 30, and it sounded like the plan will be approved then. Wilson said the draft plan should be amended to incorporate clarifications and corrections, and answers to questions planning board members have. She said the board should consider previous comments at the previous listening sessions and not just the public comment Thursday night.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” Wilson said. “I just want to make sure that we uphold the integrity of the process and not make directional changes, but do make important corrections and clarifications that are needed.”