October 4, 2017

Council, Hillier Reach Accord on Waxwood; Eight Affordable Units Will Remain Rentals

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Municipal Council last week approved, by a 5-1 margin, a revised proposal from J. Robert Hillier, architect, developer, and a Town Topics shareholder, to continue to rent rather than sell eight housing units in the Waxwood Building on Quarry Street in the Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) section of Princeton.

“My goal has been to make as many affordable units as I can available to the widest number of residents and descendants of residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson Community,” Hillier said, pointing out that current tenants and other W-J residents would prefer the less-expensive option of rentals over purchases. 

Though the original 2002 agreement between Hillier and the municipality called for Hillier to sell the units, subsequent amendments to that agreement had allowed the rentals to continue. Hillier’s proposal last week was largely supported by members of the W-J community who spoke, but before voting its approval the Council pushed him to increase from seven to eight the number of affordable units available.

Rather than five foundation and three affordable income units, the revised agreement called for one very low-income unit, two low-income units, three moderate-income units, and two middle-income units, all as defined by the Council on Affordable Housing and/or Princeton’s affordable housing regulation requirement that the units be rented to applicants who have resided in the John Witherspoon neighborhood for at least 10 years, or to direct descendants of such neighborhood residents.

Mayor Liz Lempert expressed her support for Hillier’s revised proposal. “It’s the best outcome for where we are right now,” she said. “It’s important that we have an agreement that best matches the spirit of the original. The modified agreement does the best job of meeting the spirit of the original agreement.”

She added, “This was a long process. I’m thankful for the residents who participated and for Mr. Hillier’s flexibility and willingness to compromise.”

According to a survey circulated by Hillier last month, two-thirds of the neighborhood residents were for continuing the rental of the Waxwood units, while only six percent were for selling them. Pointing out the financial advantages of renting rather than buying, Hillier said, ”My intention has been to do the right thing for this community that has been so important to this town.”

Councilman Lance Liverman agreed. “It’s time we look at what people can afford,” he said. “The W-J community is asking for affordable housing, a decent place to live in a community that they grew up in. The majority of the neighborhood has asked, ‘Can we leave these as rentals?’ That’s what’s best for the neighborhood.”

Council member Jo Butler, the lone dissenter in the vote to approve Hillier’s revised proposal, argued that the original 2002 agreement should be maintained and the units should be put up for sale. “I’m in favor of holding Mr. Hillier to the first deal,” she said. Emphasizing the advantages of home ownership, she added, “Ten years from now we will look back, and people will wish they had purchased.”

Among the numerous community members who spoke in support of Hillier’s proposal were long-time W-J residents Shirley Satterfield, a historian and educator whose family has lived in Princeton for six generations, and Housing Authority Board member Leighton Newlin. “There has been lots of disagreement, but Waxwood is central to the issue of maintaining an African American presence in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood,” said Newlin. “Only one of his tenants took issue with the rental agreement. Those individuals who are current residents do not have the ability to purchase.”

George Cumberbatch, a Waxwood renter since 2004 who had expressed a desire to purchase a unit, had hired a lawyer, Robert Lytle, to represent him at an earlier Council session in opposition to Hillier’s proposal to change the units to permanent rentals. At last week’s Council meeting, however, which Cumberbatch was unable to attend, Lytle reported that Cumberbatch’s “concerns have been addressed” and that he supports Hillier’s proposal.

Hillier redeveloped Waxwood 15 years ago to create housing out of what had been first the segregated Witherspoon School for Colored Children, then a nursing home, then the Waxwood building, named after school principal Harry Waxwood Jr. Hillier noted that restoration of the building had cost about $11 million.