Princeton Borough's historic districts the Central Business District, Mercer Hill, Bank Street, and Jugtown all have several things in common: they are all unique; they all, in their own way, represent Borough character; and whenever structural or aesthetic changes are proposed, they must go through bureaucratic channels.
But in the matter of reviewing an expanse within the Borough's Western section known as the Morven Tract, there is a crucial difference: while there are residents in favor of having their neighborhood designated "historic," thus implementing safeguards for neighborhood character and appearance, there is another contingent concerned about potential hits on property values, and, incidentally, fears that historic designation would homogenize a neighborhood that is recognized for its varied architecture.
Last Wednesday at Borough Hall, a room packed with Western section residents heard a presentation by Cecelia Tazelaar, a member of the Borough's Historic Preservation Review Committee, on the benefits of historic designation, and responded with the same mixed opinions that had been expressed in the previous public hearing on the matter.
In November, Borough Council first heard a presentation from Ms. Tazelaar expounding the benefits of historic designation. Prior to that hearing, Derek Bridger, the Borough's zoning officer, said that while he recognized some of the problems residents might have with historic designation, it was, for the most part, "an overall positive benefit to the town."
Historic designation has been one of the primary mechanisms the Borough has used to protect some of the region's most vital neighborhoods. Likewise, since enacting its own historic preservation ordinance in 1987, the Township has identified 14 sites that fall under that categorization, with areas that include Tusculum, Mansgrove, and Drumthwacket, and the Princeton Basin district.
So Ms. Tazelaar, who termed the Borough's western section as the "quintessential neighborhood of a new University town" when it was developed, said that historic preservation was the "only way at this time" to preserve that area.
Concerns over neighborhood preservation have been more than abundant throughout the country in the face of an aging housing stock and a modern propensity for tearing down older homes for newer structures. The most conspicuous example in the western section was the recent tear down of a Hodge Road house that had been home to the late Elizabeth Dilworth.
While proposals for construction on that lot are not finalized, residents worry that a new structure could clash with the surrounding neighborhood.
"The community doesn't have any control of guiding new construction and alterations in the district," Ms. Tazelaar said, adding that a "steel and glass cube" could be built there that met the current design requirements. While that has not happened, "we need to be prepared for that eventuality."
Some residents attempted to quell concerns over potential insurance hikes resulting from owning property in a historic-labeled neighborhood, but others remained skeptical.
"I've heard nothing about the risks and obviously such a designation has risks," said Kim Pimley, who lives in the Western section. "I've heard nothing about the economics and how this might adversely impact our house values."
Ms. Tazelaar cited a 1998 study conducted by the New Jersey Historic Trust that estimates an increased property value of about 5 percent for properties within a historic district. However, that study points to several variables, including certain properties of a house, like elaborate stonework, that could make a district's houses "prone to either increases or decreases in value.
"Knowing the [extent] of a negative impact that is totally offset by a positive impact is far more informative than just knowing, for instance, [if the] designation has a neutral effect," the study reads.
The HPRC will meet tonight, February 7, at 7:30 p.m., at Borough Hall to further discuss proposed historic designation of the Morven Tract.
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