May 11, 2016

Sensible Course of Action Is to Impose a Moratorium On Home Demolitions While Zoning Review Proceeds

To the Editor:

I experienced a small measure of cautious relief from the recent decision by the Princeton Council to retain the services of a consultant to “take a hard look at residential zoning in the town,” as Town Topics reported in its May 4 edition [“Growing Teardown Trend Brings in a Consultant for Zoning, Planning Study,” page one],

The proposed teardown of a property adjacent to my own house in the vicinity of Mountain Avenue a couple of years ago prompted me to formally raise the matter with our Zoning Board of Adjustment. Unsurprisingly, my entreaty was summarily voted down and work to demolish the preexisting residence with an outsized replacement commenced without delay.

More interesting, though, was the feedback that I received at the time from Township Planning Director Lee Solow who declared in letter that my own 2500 square foot house built circa 1950 was “obsolescent.” Being a trained planner myself, this terminology struck a chord because in the world of property development it does not mean quite the same thing as it might if one were talking about an older model car or temperamental dishwasher.

The notion of obsolescence is technical vernacular with a specific legal meaning and it was deployed to devastating effect during the 1950s and 1960s to open the way for so-called slum-clearance projects in cities across the country. Applied to the whole of Princeton today, a not insignificant number of local homes would presumably be duly designated because they are unfashionably small or architecturally not of the moment.

The apparent — or at least potential — reversal of political sensibilities on this issue is, therefore, extremely consequential and I commend both Mayor Lempert and the Township Council for their evolving understanding. However, we should probably brace ourselves. If you think the pace of teardowns has finally reached an untenable level, I suspect that over the next few months there will be a mad rush to rapidly demolish an even larger number of perfectly livable homes around town as both sellers and developers sense that the permissive window to cash in is starting to close. The sensible course of action is therefore to impose a local moratorium on home demolitions while the newly announced comprehensive zoning review proceeds.

Maurie J. Cohen

Morgan Place