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Vol. LXII, No. 1
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
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Could Shopping Center Play a Role in Housing? Some See Possibility

Matthew Hersh

With the battle for age-restricted housing mired in a necessity-versus-environment stand-off, some involved in the Princeton Ridge conservation debate are calling anew for an exploration of the possibilities of building housing just down the hill, on property owned by the Princeton Shopping Center.

Roughly six acres of largely unused land lies wedged between the Princeton Shopping Center’s north parking lot and Terhune Road and would appear, advocates say, to have the right ingredients for senior housing; if developed, there would be less of an immediate environmental threat, that being the primary concern of developing along the Ridge; and the site is close to amenities at the Shopping Center. Newcomers to the Princeton Ridge preservation effort enthuse of the the possibilities this land has to offer, but battle-worn housing advocates who have struggled through a bruising 15-year process of lobbying for market-rate senior housing in the Township, nod their heads in wary in agreement, while holding back on the inevitable, collective, “been there, done that.”

The Princeton Shopping Center has long been viewed as a potential location not only for housing, but for redevelopment in general; yet each time the redevelopment question has been raised, it’s been met, almost immediately, with enough neighbor resistance to make Shopping Center management shy away from the redevelopment prospect and focus on the facility’s existing, already successful, business model.

But with vacant land at the north end of the site explicitly zoned for senior housing, the Shopping Center, with its 220,000-square-foot facility, appears ripe for redevelopment, experts say, even though several ideas for retooling the site have been floated, only to disappear as quickly as they surfaced. The most recent concept was aired in late 2003, when a Rutgers University advanced landscape architecture studio devoted a semester to redesigning Princeton’s “Downtown North.”

Those concepts were presented to the Regional Planning Board in 2004, only to meet swift resistance from residents assembled at Township Hall. Suggestions for the Shopping Center site ranged from placing senior housing and office space on the undeveloped area, as well as enhancing the frontage facing Harrison Street including moving the gas station south, as well as improving the intersection leading into the center from Valley Road. Plans to add a second story to some of the existing retail buildings were also met with resident worries about scale and increased lighting.

Considering the significant distance from property lines due to parking from all sides of the center, as well as an eastern buffer in the form of a municipal park, planners are still hoping that, someday, resident concerns can be assuaged and that the land will be used in ways more in line with smart growth practices.

The exterior of the Shopping Center is most striking, said Carlos Rodrigues, a Princeton architect and professional planner who co-led the Rutgers studio: “It’s pretty primitive in terms of access for pedestrians and bicycles.” Mr. Rodrigues, who also chairs the Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment, went on to criticize the parking lot’s interface with Grover Park, which abuts the driving route that encircles the Shopping Center.

When it comes to creating additional use on site, Mr. Rodrigues said proper zoning should allow for higher density, while requiring less parking per square foot. “The shopping center is basically in a straightjacket - they can’t expand in any way, shape, or form because they’re constrained by the parking.”

Parking was a central issue in 2002, when Princeton architect Jeremiah Ford III lent his services to George Comfort & Sons, the Manhattan-based management agent for the Shopping Center, for a redevelopment concept delivered to the Planning Board that year. That plan, which was never formally submitted for municipal review, envisioned adding 150 senior units, 48 apartments, and about 100,000 square feet of office space, in addition to structured parking.

“It would absolutely be logical to put housing there,” Mr. Ford said in an interview. “I identified two types of housing - one was senior housing and the other was housing for younger couples, and all the other people we know who are excluded from the Princeton scene.

“There’s no place for a young schoolteacher to live here: I’m talking about one- and two-bedroom stuff where you could live without a car,” he said.

Mr. Ford’s plan was floated, but it soon became clear that the neighborhood’s quick draw against redevelopment was too much for the Comfort group to handle, and the plan was shelved. “There is a history of resistance, but resistance is part of the process and part of the nature of trying to accomplish anything in the community,” Mr. Ford said.

Dana Comfort, executive vice president at George Comfort & Sons, was not immediately available for comment.

That resistance can be traced back as far as 1994, when Sunrise Assisted Living offered a sneak preview of a concept for the Planning Board, outlining a three-story, 72-unit, 90-bed facility on the Shopping Center’s undeveloped land. That plan, however, only addressed housing, and not redevelopment potential in other parts of the Shopping Center’s property.

Both Mr. Ford and Mr. Rodrigues said the municipalities should play a greater role in overall community planning and encourage a more pedestrian-oriented scheme, rather than building out in undeveloped areas by way of changes to the Princeton Community Master Plan and through a general change in zoning at the Shopping Center. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to put a lot of people in the boondocks,” Mr. Ford said.

There are two tracts that have received development approvals in the Township on what is currently wooded, undeveloped land. They include a 30-acre tract off Mount Lucas Road that received approval for 49 age 62-and-over units, and a 20-acre Bunn Drive expanse that won approval for 140 age 62-and-over units. The Bunn Drive site is currently under review by Township Hall as it weighs a proposal to lower the resident age minimum there from 62 years to 55 years. That proposal has also attracted significant attention from the community and is ongoing. A vote to either introduce or table an ordinance changing that zone is slated for Township Committee’s January 14 meeting.

A third plot, also off Bunn Drive, won approval from the zoning board in June 2007 for roughly 30 age 55-and-over units, but that was only part of a larger proposal to build 96 age-restricted residences over two lots. The zoning board, however, denied the development of the more interior lot, subsequently stalling the entire project.

While in all three cases, environmental concerns were expressed, those areas have long been zoned for development, and in each case, the property owners have expressed a willingness to help the Township achieve a long-stated goal for market-rate senior housing. But for people like Mr. Ford, already-developed areas closer to town should remain as part of the dialogue: “You look at old company towns in New England, and people walk to work. We get in our cars and commute great distances, and that’s just wrong.”

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