Did we vote to become a city? By increasing the allowable density over a very broad area of town, and by reducing and eliminating restrictions to development, the proposed Master Plan would allow many of the existing buildings that create the particular feel of this place to be demolished and replaced by new structures containing more units. More often than not, these are grossly out of keeping in scale and design with the neighborhood in which they’re situated. Could this Home Replacement Therapy, despite the good intentions of its advocates, be the cure that kills the patient?
Crucially, the plan relies on developers to fulfill its progressive ideals. But in this overheated housing market, the profit incentive only creates a drive for more units in greater densities – at ever higher prices. For whom are we providing all this projected new housing? “Affordable” seems a misnomer. For example, Accessory Dwelling Units are very appealing in concept, but even a tiny recent Accessory Dwelling Units on Guyot is now valued at over a million dollars. Whenever an affordable home enters the market – beat up, perhaps, but a dandy starter home – a developer makes a cash offer, tears it down, and replaces it with a far more expensive house. More people will move here, yes, but it seems increasingly doubtful that they’ll be people of low, modest, or middle incomes.
Might it be better and fairer to provide living places for the people of limited means who contribute to and are part of our community? Landscapers, food servers, Princeton University janitors, and others who serve the more prosperous ought to be able to live here, too. One wonders if it might be more strategic, after all, for the municipality itself to construct such rentals.
The particular character of Princeton’s neighborhoods and districts developed incrementally, over the course of three and a half centuries, radiating outwards as the town grew. The proposed Master Plan takes the enlightened position that our outer regions should remain as unbuilt and natural as possible. This places great pressure on the center. Change is inevitable, and improvement desirable, but there are few provisions in the Master Plan that even acknowledge the modest and mellow pleasures of Princeton’s established neighborhoods, let alone create a means of moderating the design and compatibility of the buildings that would replace these houses. Most of our housing stock is not “historic” in the grander sense, but these homes embody the vernacular texture of the community.
I guess what this all boils down to is attachment: Love of place. And, perhaps above all, continuity – a sense that our attachments to this extraordinary town connect us to the people who came before us here, and make us want to bequeath at least some of those particular pleasures – these characterful old houses, these tree-lined streets – to the people who will follow us. A lot of us look for more balance between change and continuity, and we’re not finding it yet in this Master Plan.
Ronald Berlin, AIA