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Settlement Made on Palmer Square Housing

Candace Braun
Matthew Hersh

After more than 13 years of debate, Palmer Square Management and the Borough Council have finally reached a settlement regarding the construction of approximately 100 residential units on Paul Robeson Place.

Pending formal approval by the Council, Palmer Square will allow the developer to proceed with the construction of the 97 to 100 housing units, with 10 units of affordable housing scattered throughout the area. The new housing will generate at least $60 million in new rateables for the Borough.

"After working on this throughout my 13 years as mayor, I'm very pleased to have found a way to resolve our differences," said Mayor Marvin Reed.

Mayor Reed said that talks between himself, Mayor-Elect Joseph O'Neill and developer Oded Aboodi restarted about two months ago when he was approached by Palmer Square Management. Representatives from the organization told the mayor that if the settlement was ever to go through, it would most likely happen while he was still in office, said Mayor Reed.

Wanting to move forward, the mayor approached Council members and asked if they would be willing to make compromises to make the settlement finally go through. They agreed. While only half as many affordable housing units will be built than was first requested, the mayor said he was happy to have resolved the matter during his last six weeks in office.

"There was a lot of give and take," he said. "[The settlement] is not perfect, but it's practical, and it will get the job completed."

The agreement requires 10 percent of the units go toward municipal affordable housing mandates. This figure is down from the 20 percent that the Borough and groups like Princeton Future initially sought. Princeton Future, established in 2000, is a group of residents whose goal is focused on Princeton development including downtown development.

Housing History

The 97 units, originally designed by Robert Hillier, has been the subject of a long-term, contentious battle.

The Princeton Regional Planning Board approved a plan by the Collins Development Corp., now known as Palmer Square Management, to build 97 residential units, retail space, and an office complex along undeveloped land near Paul Robeson Place. Palmer Square constructed the commercial components of the project, as well as 17 additional units, but did not proceed constructing the remaining, approved 97 housing units.

One mandate contingent under Borough affordable housing codes was that 20 percent of the units built be put forth as affordable housing.

Palmer Square contended that the Borough's affordable housing code, known as Mt. Laurel II, came into effect after the units were approved and subsequently did not apply to any housing complex built on the privately-owned land. However, the Borough argued that the grandfather clause to the code had expired and that if residential development were to occur, it must include this mandate.

In the end, state law, which now states only a minimum of 10 percent of housing units must be affordable, ruled over the argument.

While the housing units will now finally be built, not all parties involved appear to be pleased with the potential outcome.

"You can't force a private developer to do what he doesn't want to do," said Robert Goheen of Princeton Future. "We proposed to Mr. Aboodi another architectural scheme which put more varied apartments there and would bring more diversity to that part of town," he said. "But he chose not to bite on that, I think it would have been a better solution."

However, Mr. Goheen said an end to years of disagreement would be a welcome change and at the least, a productive use of land that has been unused for many years.

"It is a good thing that area that has been unattractive for so long and looks almost blighted is going to be occupied with people and people paying rent," he said.

Another concern of Princeton Future's is the barrier-effect that structures built along Paul Robeson Place may pose on the John-Witherspoon neighborhood. One of the efforts of the group is to change traffic patterns along the "Paul Robeson Speedway" that effectively creates a wall between the Palmer Square and the neighborhood that lies behind it. Princeton Future has aimed to make that area more pedestrian-friendly for residents crossing Paul Robeson Place into downtown Princeton.

Sheldon Sturges, also of Princeton Future, said that Palmer Square Management chose to deal only with Borough Council and not listen to the "one voice" of Princeton as a whole. He addressed the issue of "opening up" the physical layout of the units facing Paul Robeson Place. "A better design would open it up more and not turn it into a gated community for rich people," he said.

He also addressed the concern that affordable housing next to luxury housing may reduce the value of the property.

"Princeton is one of the few places where you can maintain economic values with different incomes," he said.

Mr. Sturges also worried that the affordable housing units would not be part of structures built on Hulfish North, and that they would be "scattered" elsewhere in Palmer Square.

"We would not want to see the [affordable housing] units over Etc. Company," he said.

Palmer Square will be required to complete the construction of the new development within five years of the issuance of a building permit and approvals by both the Princeton Regional Planning Board and state agencies.

The affordable housing units must be built within the area bounded by Nassau, Witherspoon and Chambers Streets, and Paul Robeson Place. Palmer Square and the Borough will work cooperatively to produce a pool of candidates to occupy the affordable housing units, and the final selection will be made by Palmer Square.

The Borough will receive a series of payments from Palmer Square to cover the cost of off-site improvements, and the review and processing of building plans. This will include $75,000 to be placed in escrow for plan review and approval, $71,775 for past improvements on Chambers Street, and $10,000 for improvements on properties on Paul Robeson Place.

Additionally, Palmer Square agreed to pay up to $137,000 for sewer line upgrades, as well as $300,000 in connection fees.

If approved, the Borough will cooperate with Palmer Square in expediting approvals for development, and will introduce an ordinance to allow for stacked parking for the new development site.

The Council will vote on a motion to release the settlement at its meeting on Tuesday, December 23. It will then hold a public hearing to adopt the developer's agreement on Tuesday, January 13.

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