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Vol. LXII, No. 21
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
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Greenview Condo Hearing Continues; Hillier’s Witnesses Cross-Examined

Linda Arntzenius

A proposed condominium project by architect J. Robert Hillier along Greenview Avenue in Princeton Borough received heavy scrutiny last Wednesday from the Borough’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The four and a half hour hearing was a continuation of one that began on April 8.

The project would replace three existing rental properties, a garage, and a vacant warehouse with a three-story, age-restricted complex comprising 11 market-rate units and three affordable units.

Local residents worry that the proposed building will change the character of the neighborhood and result in higher -property taxes for existing homeowners.

Market-rates for the units are estimated to be in the $450,000 to $700,000 range.

The board heard testimony from Mr. Hillier (a stockholder of Town Topics, Inc.) and his witnesses: traffic engineer Georges Jacquemart; real estate appraiser Joseph L. Mazotas; and zoning and planning consultant Dennis Hudacsko; who were cross-examined by attorney Chris DeGrazia, representing neighboring property owners Steve Gates and Julie Fox.

In a phone interview following last week’s meeting, Mr. Gates claimed that the project would result in the loss of valuable rental housing. “We like the neighborhood the way it is,” he said. “Adding a big building where people drive in, park underground and use an elevator to get to their apartment will have a negative impact on our community.”

Mr. Hillier is asking the board to permit an increased floor-area ratio from 45 percent to 89 percent and an increased coverage area from 30 to 38 percent, as well as an increase in the allowance for dwellings per unit from the existing three to 14 units.

In addition to a 21-car underground parking garage, the proposed building would feature a sod roof, weathered cedar shingles, white wood trims, and a brick turnaround for cars. It was described as replacing five existing structures with a two-story building with a third-story penthouse set back so as to be invisible from the street.

“This would be more green building than any of the others in the area,” said Mr. Hillier, who went on to outline an alternative plan of three houses of three units each. He questioned whether the alternative would be the best use of the site.

Real estate appraiser Joseph L. Mazotas presented a seven-page report examining the effect of the Greenview project on neighboring property values. His findings were based upon the effects of four other multi-dwelling properties in the Borough (One Markham, 30 Moore Street, Willow Street Condominiums, and Waxwood Apartments). Mr. Mazotas concluded that the one-building Greenview project would have no deleterious effects on property values in the neighborhood. If there was any impact on values at all, it would be upward.

Board member Ann McGoldrick questioned the value of Mr. Mazotas’s comparison on the ground that the four other buildings had been existing structures that were replaced with multi-dwelling projects, whereas the Greenview proposal replaces three homes.

Board member Steven Cohen asked about the likelihood of this property setting a precedent for future projects whereby others might buy up existing rentals and combine them into one lot for multi-dwelling development.

Mr. Hillier observed that his company had done four comparable properties. “This meets a community need,” he said, “there is no housing like this for 55 and over in the Borough.”

Mr. De Grazia asked for a comparison of the proposed multi-dwelling building with one that would rehab the existing buildings. Mr. Mazotas said that the result in terms of value on the other properties would be similar, but that there was a question as to whether such a rehab would ever take place since it would not benefit the owners of rental properties to invest in them.

“There are a number of rental properties that are not being maintained because they make money just sitting there,” commented Mr. Hillier’s attorney Mark Solomon. “The realities of the market force you to sit on your rental properties or tear down and build a McMansion.”

Alex Magoun, a nine-year resident of Humbert Street, asked the Board about the ratio of rental to owner-occupied properties in the Borough. “Princeton Borough faces the reality of high demand for a limited supply of transient and residential housing, aggravated by the University’s expansion and the town’s cultural popularity,” he said.

In a follow-up interview, Mr. Magoun commented on the proposed Greenview construction in comparison to an alternative McMansion-style development: “Speaking as a private resident, I know what I’d prefer. Hillier has offered an unusually creative solution that will increase the number of taxpaying homeowners in smaller townhouses without burdening the schools or traffic. The buyers who move in from larger Borough houses then open the prospect of more rental opportunities in aging housing stock elsewhere in town.”

In an email interview, Mr. Hillier commented on the unique nature of the proposed development. “The odds of finding four adjoining properties in another part of the Borough where one could do this project or one similar to it are pretty remote if not impossible,” he said.

Planning and zoning consultant Mr. Dennis Hudacsko described the design as an opportunity for the Borough to take a leading role with respect to “classic and efficient infill development.” He said that the proposal was consistent with the town’s master plan and the need for senior housing. This is a “creative solution that replaces nine families with 14 senior residents in an area that has easy access to downtown,” he said.

Board member Russell White expressed concern that approval of this project would ultimately lead to a loss of low- and middle-income housing. “What about all those people with three kids that are making $50,000 a year,” he said, adding his view that seniors are among the wealthiest people in the country.

Board member Marilyn Lynch spoke positively about the type of condominium being proposed, expressing the hope to see more residential projects like it for seniors.

The hearing will continue at a date yet to be specified.

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