February 17, 2016

Noting Additional Reasons to Support Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District

To the Editor:

I don’t live in the Witherspoon-Jackson (WJ) neighborhood. Those who do have written eloquently about its rich, complicated and at times difficult history. They want to preserve the area as Princeton’s 20th historic district (HD). I fully support this, and will add some practical reasons for doing so.

The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has stated publicly that in this proposed “Type II” district, they will only be concerned with what can be seen from the street. If not seen, or if maintenance looks the same, no review is necessary. You can even paint your home’s front any color without HPC review. Many residents have testified to the assistance HPC provides in helping them find less expensive materials that maintain the current “look” of their house.

Many studies have found that HDs enhance property values. Some people worry that prices will rise too much, increasing taxes on residents. But a New York City review by its Independent Budget Office, covering 1975-2002, found that the average annual “premium” for property appreciation in an HD versus similar non-HD properties was just 1.2 percent. A 2007 Tucson review covering 15 cities and states all around the U.S.A. (including very high appreciation tourist oriented HDs in Galveston, San Diego, and Savannah) reported premiums of only 0.5-3.0 percent.

This doesn’t mean an HD will increase WJ taxes 1-2 percent more each year. It does mean they won’t spike due to a mcmansion next door. Some day, when a resident sells her house, she will benefit from this small extra appreciation.

The tax problem now, without a WJHD, is that much larger, more expensive homes are built in place of torn down smaller ones. When a large home selling for $900K-$1.2M is built, it is assessed at its sale price. When the next revaluation is done, the tax assessor looks at the new large home that sold for $1M+ and attributes part of the price to the land value. He then imputes a new, higher land value to surrounding properties. This increases their total assessment although the house on them has not changed one bit.

Creation of the WJHD will help stabilize tax assessments throughout the neighborhood for current property owners. Without this HD, rapid gentrification and market forces result in rapidly rising tax assessments as developers pick off individual properties and build the largest homes that current zoning permits. This would also destroy the nature of the community.

Let’s not become another Manhattan where only the wealthy can live near our center of commerce and culture. Since the end of the 19th century, people of modest means who actually get the hard work done in our town and University — mostly African-Americans, Italians, and now Latinos — have lived in this neighborhood. Let’s designate a WJHD and allow them to continue living here, rather than pack them off to Trenton.

This will benefit all who live in Princeton by preserving a key part of our history, and maintaining a diverse ethnic and socio-economic population. If you care about this, about greatly slowing gentrification, and keeping housing that’s affordable, please come to the special Council meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday February 22, at 400 Witherspoon Street. Show your support. Speak a short statement. Our Councilors listen.

John Heilner

Library Place