October 31, 2018

New Ordinance Approved by Council Addresses Teardowns, Zoning Standards

By Anne Levin

At its last meeting on October 22, Princeton Council voted to introduce an ordinance that creates new neighborhood residential zoning standards. The ordinance is a response, in part, to community concerns about the impact of development on existing neighborhoods, and the numerous teardowns of homes that are then replaced by houses considered to be oversized and out of scale.

Jim Constantine of the consultants LRK Inc. reviewed the elements of the ordinance, which is the first phase of work addressing these issues. LRK looked at volume, bulk, and massing controls, he said, analyzing a series of potential amendments and going through legal and zoning reviews. The group also held two workshops to gather input from the public and keep them informed.

“Princeton certainly isn’t the only community dealing with teardowns,” he said. “It is occurring in many communities across the nation. And it is a challenge.”

Reflecting on the ordinance this week, Mayor Liz Lempert said it is the first one for Princeton to include illustrations. “That is so important,” she said. “When Council was debating this and the public was commenting on it, having the visuals helped everybody understand what was actually being discussed. Most of us are lay people. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what things mean in the abstract. These [illustrations] will help the decision-makers comprehend, and lend clarity in terms of the intention of the ordinances.”

This initial ordinance addresses issues the town has heard about most frequently from residents — height, prominent garages, and receding front doors. “I think this will have significant impact in terms of new construction and additions, and how they fit into a neighborhood,” said Lempert. “One of the things that makes Princeton a special place and creates such strong neighborhoods is that we are a walkable community by and large, especially in the neighborhoods covered by this ordinance. It’s important that the architecture of people’s homes reflect that sentiment. And I think we’ve experienced a period where, from the street, a lot of the newer homes seem designed more for cars than for people going in and out. That has an impact on the feeling you get walking down the street, and that was something a lot of people in the community were reacting to but didn’t quite know how to express.”

LRK focused on districts of town where the most teardowns have taken place. Constantine told Council it was important to get the ordinance in place “before the start of the 2019 building season, when those permits start to come in,” he said. “That way, we have the provisions ready.”

The next phase will look at affordability issues, and the “missing middle” class.

Lempert praised Constantine’s efforts on the ordinance. “He really listened to all of the parties involved, especially the residents, to come up with something that addresses some of the most serious concerns we’ve had, and in a way that is going to be workable,” she said. “We’ll be watching and hoping this has the desired impact. We’re not done yet, but this is a start.”