HISTORIC LODGE: The Masonic Temple at 30 Maclean has a rich history. Situated on the corner with John Street, the building is in the process of being purchased by a group of developers working in tandem with local architect Josh Zinder and others who plan to restore the building’s exterior while restructuring the interior as rental apartments. Mr. Zinder and his partners brought their initial concept of the building’s future to a meeting with members of the local community held at the Arts Council of Princeton last week. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)
Is there a market in Princeton for rental apartments within walking distance of the center of town for people of modest income who want low rents and access to all that the municipality has to offer? Princeton Property Partners (PPP) seem to think so. And, in conjunction with local architect Josh Zinder and several others, they are putting their beliefs into action with an undertaking that would turn the old Masonic Lodge at the corner of John and Maclean streets in the Jackson/Witherspoon neighborhood into an apartment building.
Last Wednesday, January 21, PPP’s Aubrey Haines and Mr. Zinder invited the neighbors in to see what they had in mind. Their plans met with a cautious thumbs up.
The proposal to turn the Masonic Temple into a 10-unit apartment building was presented to those who live near the historic structure and who are concerned about the impact that any plans for its future use might have on the neighborhood.
About 50 people, including four former Princeton mayors: Jim Floyd, Marvin Reed, Mildred Trotman, and Yina Moore, came to the Arts Council to hear Mr. Zinder, who lives on Moore Street and is principal of the architectural firm JZA+D, describe plans for 10 apartments ranging from about 500 square feet to just under 1,000 square feet.
To conform with the municipality’s 20 percent affordable housing requirements, two of the units would be designated “affordable housing.”
Aubrey Haines of PPP, which invests in college-town properties, spoke first and acknowledged co-investors, Jared Witt, Roland Pott, and Josh Zinder. “Josh is a 14- year resident of Princeton, he understands a lot about this community and how they view change,” said Mr. Haines. “Others might come in and say here’s what we want to do. We recognize that this doesn’t get a good reception, so we want to start with the community and get things right.”
“This historic structure is important to the people who grew up here and a developer could come in, knock it down, and build two mansions, but that isn’t appropriate for this neighborhood,” said Mr. Haines. “We are here to listen to what you have to say.”
Stressing that the ideas being presented were still in the early stages and that the purchase of the building hasn’t yet been finalized, Mr. Zinder said: “We think we have a good project for this neighborhood. We want to restore and maintain the building.” Noting that the building had some original brick, he said, “We would like to bring back some of the character of the original structure, perhaps expose some of the brick, refinish the wood, or color the stucco.”
“We want to present the concept to the neighbors, since we will be seeking variances and would like to have their support. We want to keep the original structure rather than tear it down and put up something that would be at odds with the neighborhood,” said Mr. Zinder.
The plan would include an external staircase and an elevator tower serving three ground floor flats (two studios and a one-bedroom apartment), three second floor units, and four units on the top two floors, and a parking lot on Maclean.
Questions and comments from the audience followed the brief presentation. The first came from a neighbor who knew the building from the days when her grandfather was a mason. “It’s hard to see how you will get ten apartments into this building,” she said, to which Mr. Zinder responded that the building is bigger than one might think — when a mezzanine is taken into account, it’s over 7,000 square feet.
The developers were asked what sort of rent was anticipated. “The rentals would be less than some of the fancier units in town,” said Mr. Haines, citing other “affordable housing” offered in the municipality. “Not only is this good for the town, it’s a good business decision. We don’t want to compete with that market. We will be targeting seniors and students.”
“I share your concern that some of the properties being developed are out of the price-range of most average people,” said Mr. Haines, noting that it was hard to give any figures until all of the costs had been worked out. “This is a process. We want to work with you and listen to you, but we have to make money on this project or we are not going to do it,” he said.
Neighbors were concerned that the building’s history be acknowledged, perhaps by a brass plaque or signage, as had been done for the Waxwood Building nearby.
Questions were also raised about parking for new residents. The town requires 1.5 parking spaces per unit. As it stands, the plan would need 15 spaces. “Currently there are 13 spaces, including a handicapped space at the site,” said Mr. Zinder, acknowledging the problem. “We are hoping that not all residents will have cars. The worst case scenario would be a need for 20 spaces. We recognize this is something we have to solve.”
The developers pointed out the need to maximize profitability and their belief that renters of studio apartments would not need parking spaces. He acknowledged, however, that this was an issue that had been struggled with and that it was possible that the number of units could change. But with a reduced number of units, the rentals would be higher.
But one neighbor who had moved to Princeton from New York City agreed that there would be renters who needed no parking spots. “I’d like to see this plan succeed and would hate to see it torpedoed by parking issues,” he said.
Ingrid Reed asked whether there were data available on whether there was a market for people who do not want to have a car. Mr. Zinder said that they were intending to hire a traffic consultant to address that issue.
“I came here with an open mind,” said Birch Avenue resident Leighton Newlin, who was born and raised in the neighborhood. “I like your presentation. This building means a lot to this community. I don’t blame you for wanting to make a profit out of it. It will still look like a Masonic Temple. You will keep the integrity of the building. If another developer comes in with a better plan, I’d be surprised.”
Mr. Floyd also spoke favorably of the project, asking how members of the community could invest in it. “I’m impressed that you are trying to be honest about this and not deceitful. We are grateful for your concern for the neighborhood.”
Sheldon Sturges of Princeton Future commented on neighborhood gentrification. “Even these properties will not be affordable for this community,” he said, suggesting that the developers do something really innovative, something historic, and ask the municipality to allocate 50 percent of the units to people who would pay 30 percent of their income.
Mr. Sturges suggested that “as a community, would do well to think of a new way to encourage developers to build ’50-50’ residential, mixed-income units. Fifty percent of the units might be ‘market’ and 50 percent might be ‘non-market.’ The non-market units could be made available to those who qualify at 30 percent of their income. Incentives for the developer might involve: a granting of wished-for zoning variances and/or a grant of public property on which to develop another, similar project. This is a moral issue for the community. It is a social justice issue. Josh and his team are good, local partners to try to work out a new way for us all to work together.”
Rounding up the meeting, Mr. Zinder said: “We are open to having another neighborhood meeting when we are ready to present to the Princeton planning board. Principal of the architectural firm J ZA+D, Mr. Zinder was recently honored with the Architectural Firm of the Year service award. He is scheduled to speak at the Princeton Adult School March 19 as part of a series of conversations with Ingrid Reed.