The Princeton Planning Board voted 9-0 to approve the controversial municipal Master Plan just before 12:30 a.m. Friday, with some board members saying residents raised concerns that lacked substance and didn’t offer solutions.
More than 230 people attended the second of two Zoom meetings Thursday. Residents who expressed concerns about the plan during two public hearing sessions held via Zoom were mostly dismissed as either misunderstanding the plan or not wanting to face the reality of change.
“For better or worse, change is inevitable, and if we don’t plan for the change we want, we get the change we don’t want,” Princeton Councilman David Cohen said.
“I’ve seen exactly this happening and lamented widely over the 36 years I have lived in Princeton…most homes being torn down and replaced with large expensive McMansions and even the remaining more modest homes skyrocketing in price, and an inexorable trend towards becoming a golden ghetto, already unaffordable to all but the top 5% and the lucky few who qualify for subsidized affordable housing,” Cohen said.
Cohen then said if the almost 1,000 residents who signed the petition started by the Princeton Coalition for Responsible Development were asked if they wanted that kind of change, most of them would say no.
“But they might deny reality, saying they aren’t in the top 5% and they somehow managed to live here,” Cohen said. “But often those folks moved here 20 to 30 years ago and it was more affordable, as did I. Most of us could never afford to buy a home in Princeton today.”
Cohen said the supporters of the master plan have emphasized the climate crisis and the housing crisis in the country, and the need for Princeton to be part of the solution.
“I sympathize with them, but concede what many critics say, which is that Princeton can’t solve these problems on its own. We can hardly even make a dent,” Cohen said, then adding that Princeton has local problems that need local solutions.
He then said his support for the plan comes from “a deeply conservative place.” He said he loved the generational and socio-economic diversity Princeton had when he first moved here, when young families and seniors, members of the police force, and public school teachers, could afford to live in the community they served.
“A healthy functioning community should be able to house all who work in and contribute to the life of the community. Helping with climate change or the housing crisis would just be a happy byproduct of helping Princeton,” Cohen said. “The kind of changes proposed in the plan are the only way to create the kind of missing middle housing needed to accommodate real income diversity in Princeton. The naysayers will object that the first modest steps we’ve taken in this direction so far with the passage of the ADU ordinance a couple of years ago are generating units which are far from affordable, in the $750,000 to $900,000 range. But I would argue that they are more affordable.”
Cohen said as the town continues to create more diverse ownership options, more affordable housing alternatives will emerge.
“By the way, you will notice that none of the critics ever proposed a better solution. They just claim that ours won’t work. And I’m going to repeat that because I really think that’s been true of what we heard tonight,” Cohen said. “I also want to point out that much of what we are proposing will work to mitigate, not exacerbate, the trends objectors worry about – the loss of green space, traffic congestion, stormwater problems. I’ve pointed out repeatedly that while the plan proposes allowing more dwelling units in certain parts of town, these are walkable, bikeable locations, and the plan does not advocate any changes in the bulk of structures, in impervious coverage allowed, in setbacks. We’re basically talking about allowing, but not requiring, more smaller dwelling units in the same building envelope rather than continuing to encourage replacing our existing housing stock with fewer larger dwelling units.”
Cohen then said he is not surprised the planning board is seeing pushback about the Master Plan.
“Change is hard, and people would rather pretend that it is possible to keep Princeton just the way it is. Unfortunately, people are also conflating this plan update with large new multifamily developments currently going up in town. Those developments are part of our court-mandated mandated affordable housing settlement and are completely independent of and unaffected by the Master Plan revisions. They should not influence our deliberations,” he said. “In sum, Princeton is not alone in facing the challenges we face and we are not reinventing the wheel with the proposed changes to the Master Plan. The recommendations reflect tested and true development patterns already common in some of Princeton’s nicest neighborhoods and they fall squarely within the bounds of best practices espoused consistently by the vast majority in the planning profession and being adopted by similar community communities across the country.”
Planning Board member Tim Quinn said he counted and the board received 80 comments during the public hearing on the plan. “If we add that to the 7,000-plus people who participated in the process, I do think that we’ve heard a lot,” Quinn said.
In response to concerns of a member of the Princeton Shade Tree Commission about open space and greenery in more densely developed areas, Quinn asked whether it is possible for developers to be required to contribute to open space acquisition so that urban areas can have open space nearby. Planner Justin Lesko said he consulted with the town’s lawyer and she was adamant that requiring developers to pay into an open space fund would not be allowed.
Planning Board member Nat Bottigheimer praised Cohen’s comments and said it was striking to him that people who supported the plan connected Master Plan proposals to problems, in contrast with people who expressed a desire for the planning board to hold off on adopting the plan.
“It just seems like such a reasonable, measured, fact-based, problem-based document. If you can’t respond to that with suggestions, I mean, I just don’t know what the conversation is about,” Bottigheimer said. “I was just trying to think about why it is that there’s so much discomfort with change…I spent a lot of time thinking about the psychology of discomfort with change, and maybe I’ll save that for another time.”
At 11:45 p.m., Quinn suggested that given how late it was, the planning board might want to postpone a vote so the discussion could continue and people’s questions could be answered. He said some residents had ideas he thought were worth following up on. “I’m going to start fading pretty fast,” Quinn said of the late time.
But Planning Board Chairwoman Louise Wilson said she wanted to finish then and not carry the vote over to another meeting.
Planning Board Member Jack Taylor then praised the board’s work. “The way in which we have put this plan together is absolutely outstanding. It’s really top-notch in every respect and compares with anything that I’ve seen among major companies, not simply governments,” Taylor said. “I was impressed that we had really effectively assessed what the community thought, which is always challenging. It’s very difficult to do, and mainly the weakness of most master plans.”
Taylor went on to say that almost everything that arose during public comment and the planning board’s discussion was about implementation issues.
“We’ve talked about the pause issue versus approval tonight. There is no reason in my mind not to approve unless there is some real weight to the two lawyers’ comments,” Taylor said. “It’s a policy document, it’s a strategic vision, and therefore implementation is everything, and that’s the council’s responsibility. So we’re doing our part and implementation is the town council.”
Two residents who are lawyers with experience in land-use cases had raised questions about whether the master plan could be used to support approvals of projects before new zoning is implemented. Gerald Muller, the lawyer for the planning board, dismissed the idea, except possibly in certain narrow zoning board variance cases. Officials said master plans and ordinances are not adopted simultaneously, so there will always be a period between the Master Plan update and the implementation of ordinances.
“The only reason to step back is if we think the document is flawed,” Cohen said, adding that the land use map included in the new Master Plan is of no use to applicants for zoning variances because it doesn’t align with the municipality’s zones. “You can look at the density that is in this broad swath of area, and somebody can claim that they’re aligned with the Master Plan,” he said. “But that’s not the way that map works.”
Planning Board member Owen O’Donnell said a lot of the conversation about the Master Plan has focused on density and its impact on traffic and schools. “One of the people tonight made a comment that the Master Plan is trying to drive growth,” he said. “My take on that is that without this Master Plan, growth is going to drive Princeton. We will not be prepared properly. I think this is a good plan for that. It is a smart growth plan as well as a smart plan.”
O’Donnell said the implementation of the plan is where things will come together. He said residents should look at the agendas for upcoming Princeton Council meetings, and get involved early in the process.
“What we have to do on the Planning Board is look at what we feel is best for the entire community,” O’Donnell said. “I’m hearing a lot of people just thinking about what’s good for their neighborhood, which is absolutely understandable. Just take a moment to try to think of the bigger picture and look at things from a different facet. “
Planning Board member Phillip Chao said he supported the Master Plan because of the focus on the environment and the Princeton Environmental Commission’s endorsement of the plan.
Councilwoman Mia Sacks said it is unfortunate that the map in the Master Plan caused so much anxiety, concern, and confusion, and that the plan won’t impact neighborhoods where residents have expressed concerns. “There were three neighborhoods that came out and expressed a great deal of anxiety about the potential implications and impact to their neighborhood of this plan – The Riverside neighborhood, the Western Section, and the Institute neighborhood,” Sacks said. “I served on the land use committee. My understanding of the plan and what we decided in that committee was that there was no impact of this plan whatsoever to the neighborhoods and that when this plan passes, it will make no difference.”
Lesko said those three neighborhoods don’t qualify as “walkable nodes.” He said the numbers on the map are based on what can be built now. “All of this is a choice. No one is coming in and saying you have to put four units on your property or you have to put two units up. Even in the areas of town where we allow for multiple units, there are still single-family homes, and there are still many of them. I don’t anticipate any change there,” Lesko said. “But as we go through some of these exercises studying subdividing the larger structures, we’ll look at neighborhoods one by one.”
Sacks said some people condemn the town’s accessory dwelling ordinance because it has not produced enough units, while others are concerned the town will become overrun with units. She said only 18 units have been built since the ordinance was implemented in 2020. She said allowed for some zoning flexibility, including subdivisions that this master plan paves the way for, would have made it easier for the developer of an Oakland Street project to build two medium-sized units, as opposed to the one big house and one big ADU that were built.
Regarding school issues, Sacks said Princeton does not want to be a town that plans based on trying to keep children out of the town.
“I can’t think of any more depressing endeavor to be involved with than trying to create a plan for the future of our town that is contingent upon trying to keep children out,” Sacks said. “That said, at the point of Princeton’s affordable housing settlement, its schools were already at capacity. Schools can absorb a tremendous amount of additional density based on fixed costs. It costs the same amount to keep the lights on if you have 10 kids or 100 Kids.”
Sacks said the town does need to focus on the schools and growth though.
“Obviously, there are all sorts of different projections. We do know that we’re going to grow and we do know that the Princeton Public Schools has been the jewel in the crown of this municipality, and it draws people from from all over the world who want to live here, not just for Princeton University, but for the Princeton Public Schools,” she said. “We need to as a town, pay attention to this. We need to expand the facilities in our public school system so that we don’t have to plan around keeping children out. That is something that the current council is committed to. I don’t want us to, in any way, diminish those acute needs and the need for us as a community to focus on that.”
Sacks praised the economic development element of the plan, which she said is something she has supported for a number of years. “It’s clear to me that we need to expand our commercial ratable base in order to offset individual property taxes. We need to get rid of a lot of what I would call arbitrary and capricious regulations that make it difficult for small businesses to move to Princeton and to grow and thrive here,” she said, adding that the Master Plan sets the foundation for making it easier for small businesses to come to Princeton. She said she thinks sometimes about the nostalgic past of Princeton and the family businesses that are gone. “These are very sad losses for all of us and I do hope that this Master Plan will make it possible for the return of some comparable small businesses,” she said.
Sacks said the Princeton Council has been doing lots of work on deferred maintenance in terms of infrastructure to pave the way for growth. She also said a priority of the council is creating a bike path in the core of the town.
“From an aspirational perspective. I think this plan emphasizes sustainability, equity, economic vitality, and environmental responsibility, which are what I believe to be the core values of the bulk of this town’s residents, and of this planning board and governing body,” Sacks said.
Quinn said prolonging the discussion about the plan would not lead to more consensus among residents.
Wilson said she was obviously interested in voting yes. “A wise woman said to me the other day that creating a Master Plan invites us to ask ourselves and each other what do we want to be? Who do we want to be?” she said. “Do we want to welcome new neighbors or do we want to put up barriers? Do we want to do all we can to address the toughest issues, whether it’s climate or housing or affordability or inequities? Or do we not?”
Editor’s note: This story will be updated later with comments from the public hearing before the planning board discussion.