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Despite Questions, Council Moves Ahead With Downtown Housing

Candace Braun
(Matthew Hersh contributed to this story)

Borough Council voted 4-0 to release the Palmer Square Housing Settlement for a public hearing to be held on Tuesday, January 13.

The unanimous decision didn't include Council members David Goldfarb and Joseph O'Neill, who weren't present at the December 23 meeting.

After a 13-year feud between the Council and Palmer Square Housing, the 97 housing units, originally designed by Robert Hillier, may be built within the next five years if granted final approval.

While all Council members were willing to move forward with settlement, one Council member, Roger Martindell, is questioning the wording of the document and the potential for Palmer Square Housing to slip out of the deal.

One of Mr. Martindell's concerns is the lack of a clause in the document stating what will happen if Palmer Square Housing fails to finish the housing within five years.

"If the developer finishes 60 [units] and walks away, then what do we do?" asked Mr. Martindell.

The agreement also states that Palmer Square Housing must make their last payment to the Borough of the maximum $137,000 for sewer line connections once all the housing units are complete. Thus, if the units are never completed, the payments will never be made to the Borough, said Mr. Martindell.

The 14-year Council member said he is just as concerned about the Borough holding up its part of the deal. If something were to happen that would force the Borough to not comply with the written agreement, the affordable housing deed restrictions would expire. He said he feels something should be written in the document that would prevent the Borough from losing the housing units.

"There may be situations over the next few years that [the Borough] may not foresee," he said.

Mr. Martindell, a self-employed lawyer in Princeton, sent Michael J. Herbert, Esq., the borough attorney, a list of 58 questions he had concerning the current developer's agreement.

Mr. Herbert read and answered Mr. Martindell's questions, and has made both the questions and answers available to the public at Borough Hall.

The Council member said he is not satisfied with all the answers to his questions, and would like to have a public discussion of some of his inquiries at the settlement hearing. He also said he would like to put off the vote on the settlement for a month, rather than vote on it just two weeks after releasing the document.

"I think when you're dealing with 100 new residences downtown ... two weeks is not much time to give mature consideration of the agreement."

The Council member said he has always been in favor of completing the project, however he is unsure about moving ahead so quickly with the settlement before having a much closer review with Council of the document's clauses.

"I think it would behoove the Borough to put together this [settlement] and discuss it with the public without having it look like a done deal.

Other Council members voiced frustration with Mr. Martindell's questions. As Councilwoman Wendy Benchley said, "I think many of those questions have been brought up before and answered."

Mayor Reed said that Mr. Martindell's questions have been reviewed and changes have been made to comply with them in the current agreement.

The mayor, who spent his last six weeks in office before retirement in negotiations with Palmer Square Housing, was concerned about putting off the settlement vote past the end of January. He said the agreement he made with the developer was made with the understanding that negotiations would be settled by the end of January.

"That's what the agreement is," he said. "This is exactly what [the developer] had objected to; second-guessing and revising.

The housing units have been debated since 1990, when the Princeton Regional Planning Board approved a plan by Palmer Square Management to build 97 units, along with retail space, and an office complex along undeveloped land near Paul Robeson Place. While other parts of the project were completed, the housing units, which could provide $60 million in new rateables for the Borough, were never built.

The struggle between Palmer Square and the Council focused on how many affordable housing units should be part of the agreement. The Council argued that under the Borough's housing code, 20 percent of the housing must be affordable. However Palmer Square disagreed, saying that the housing code was adopted after the building plan had already been approved, and the state requirement of only 10 percent should be applied.

After 13 years of contention, Mayor Reed was approached again two months ago by developer Oded Aboodi to reach a settlement. After getting approval from the Council to proceed with the best possible agreement, Mayor Reed, Mayor-Elect O'Neill, Mr. Aboodi, and his son met together to finalize plans.

"The four of us had some very frank and down-to-earth discussions," said Mayor Reed.

Both sides discussed reasons why they did not trust each other and were apprehensive about moving forward with the plan, but realized that it was in the best interest of both parties to agree on a settlement, said the mayor. The current agreement allows Palmer Square to "scatter" the affordable housing units downtown. They would become part of the Square's mixed-use buildings, contrary to what the Borough and Princeton Future had desired, which was to make them part of the new building.

The anticipated building would have approximately 3 stories above the garage, and 4 stories up from the ground along Paul Robeson Place. The building will be 35-45 feet from the ground to the eaves.

Princeton Future disputed the original plans, saying that a structure on Hulfish North would not only alienate residents of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood, but would also turn Paul Robeson Place into a "high-speed roadway" that would effectively create a partition between Palmer Square and the residential area that lies to the north.

Princeton Future has also contended that any affordable housing should be included in the physical structure to be built on Hulfish North.

Other opponents of the current plan say crosswalks and signage need to be put in place along Paul Robeson Place to facilitate pedestrian mobility.

The affordable housing units, which will consist of efficiencies, and some one- or two-bedroom apartments, will be scattered throughout the new construction, the old Palmer Square West housing, and along Nassau Street. They will all be considered, "rental rehabilitation units," and Palmer Square will make the final selection on the renters.

"Considering all that has gone on before, this is about the best we're going to get and get it done," said Mayor Reed.

Property owners within 200 feet of the new housing location will be notified of the agreement that is being considered by Council. A copy of the full agreement is available for public view at Borough Hall.

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