October 7, 2020

Forum on Franklin Avenue Site Draws Design Ideas and Input

By Anne Levin

A special meeting of Princeton Council Saturday, October 3, focused on the Franklin Avenue affordable housing site, drew more than 80 participants. The virtual gathering included a number of local design professionals with ideas on how the site might be built.

One of the signature developments of Princeton’s current round of affordable housing obligations, the site includes the former parking lot for what used to be Princeton Hospital, as well as two areas that represent Princeton’s first affordable developments dating from the late 1930s. The location borders the Witherspoon-Jackson and Harris Road neighborhoods, and is located close to the exact physical center of the municipality.

The forum was held to give Council and the town’s planning director a chance to hear ideas from architects and designers as well as members of the community, many of whom are associated with the organization Princeton Future. A few days before the forum, a petition signed by more than 120 residents of the streets surrounding the site was circulated, expressing opposition to the town’s proposal to build 160 units mixing affordable and market-rate housing instead of just 80 units of affordable housing.

“We thoroughly support building 80 units of court-ordered affordable housing on Franklin Avenue, and we look forward to welcoming new neighbors,” the petition reads. “However, we believe the town’s proposal to build a further 80 units for more affluent renters who have other options is not in the best interests of our neighborhood.”

Mayor Liz Lempert read the petition aloud as part of the proceedings.

All of the schemes presented were for the larger, mixed-use proposal. Following presentations by the Princeton Housing Authority and the development company Community Investment Strategies, urban designer Tony Nelessen was the first to put forth some ideas about how the site might look. Nelessen designed the successful Robbinsville Town Center and took inspiration from the project for the Franklin Avenue site.

Architect Heidi Fichtenbaum focused on sustainability in her presentation, explaining the benefits of the passive house concept. Increasing climate change requires a reduction in reliance on mechanical systems, she said. Benefits also include reduced maintenance, resiliency in times of power outages, and lower energy costs.

Marina Rubina, an architect and Witherspoon-Jackson resident, said the success of a project can be defined by how people react when walking by 20 years after it is built. “Would you or I be excited to go trick-or-treating here?” she asked. Mixed income projects afford more flexibility and more opportunity for design funding and low income tax credits, she said, offering some options on how the project might be financed.

Projects such as Franklin
Avenue are the type that architect and developer Joel Schwartz has been doing for 40 years. Trees, which are currently in short supply on Franklin Avenue, are key to making it work, he said. Schwartz also stressed the importance of placing power lines underground. He proposed a design with buildings on two sides and a park between them, based on the visual vocabulary of the surrounding neighborhood.

Architect and developer Bob Hillier (a Town Topics shareholder) calls his proposal for the site Franklin Village. The idea includes a variety of spaces that are green, and housing including flats, lofts, and different types of townhouses. An amenity building on the Witherspoon Street corner could house either retail or crafts shops for residents.

A path leading to the back of the project would go by what Hillier called “Philadelphia townhouses,” each with their own courtyard. Of the 160 units in the project, 70 would have a specific front door and individual street address. Half would have their own private green space.

Architect Josh Zinder’s firm came up with two schemes, which he described as educational tools rather than defined projects. Both schemes scatter the affordable units throughout the site, rather than placing them in one cluster. Palmer Square’s older buildings were an inspiration for some of the elements and materials and different townhouse types, some of which featured photovoltaic systems that come up and over the roofs.

Several community members commented on the designs. Rosemary Kelly, who lives on Witherspoon Lane behind the site, said she is concerned about density and noise. Sam Bunting, who does not live in the neighborhood, said he was puzzled by the residents who are opposed to building a mix of 160 units instead of 80 affordable units. “I would urge people to be open-minded about the possibilities that are present on this site, and work with the nice ideas we saw on this project,” he said.

Harold Heft, a resident of Jefferson Road who signed the petition, praised the participants for some of their ideas and designs. But the idea of widening Franklin Avenue would result in more noise and pollution, and the scale of some of the buildings is too large, he said.

Resident Kip Cherry said there should be a stronger street presence than what some of the designs show, with more porches to connect with people walking by. She also expressed concern about the fact that the site backs into the Princeton Cemetery. “This is a very private place for people,” she said. “It has a lot of history. I think a lot more consideration needs to go into how tall buildings facing the cemetery will affect the experience of being there.”

In coming months, a subcommittee of Council members David Cohen, Mia Sacks, and Michelle Pirone Lambros will work on creating a consensus of design guidelines with the town’s planning staff and other stakeholders based on the forum and additional input.