July 10, 2019

Chair of W-J Development Corporation Explains Mission, Need for Master Plan

To the Editor:

Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation (WJDC) is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt corporation. Its mission is to preserve, restore, and sustain the historic character, diversity, and quality of life of the Witherspoon-Jackson (WJ) neighborhood.

WJDC received funds from a settlement with Princeton University to help economically disadvantaged residents in and from the WJ neighborhood with their housing and related needs.

The WJDC Board currently has 12 directors. A majority are required by WJDC bylaws to be from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. WJDC is a public purpose organization that, by virtue of its tax-exempt status, does not endorse political candidates and does not represent the neighborhood.

The original WJDC began in 1976 with $1M in funding from local philanthropists. It benefited from a consortium of local banking institutions committed to meaningful fulfillment of their Community Reinvestment Act obligations. In about 10 years, WJDC purchased, improved, and sold (at a net loss) 23 homes to first-time homebuyers from the neighborhood with financing from the consortium. Forty years later, with $1.25M committed from the settlement, a very competitive housing market, and a different financial environment, the current WJDC must take a different approach and it is decidedly holistic.

With just a small administrative budget in December 2017, WJDC rescued one property facing tax sale. WJDC received its first installment of settlement funds in July 2018 and since then, granted over $45,000 in property tax rebates to 35 WJ homeowners and helped a tenant facing eviction. WJDC is repairing a house as an affordable rental and is purchasing a home to sell at an affordable price. WJDC has recently partnered with Habitat for Humanity to make needed repairs and improvements to homes in the neighborhood. WJDC is facilitating a process to improve the fencing along Paul Robeson Place in cooperation with the WJ Historic and Cultural Society and Palmer Square, Inc. WJDC is also proud to support the Princeton Entrepreneurship Summer Camp for Princeton High School students with connections to the WJ neighborhood.

Despite limited resources, WJDC strives to address systemic problems of racial discrimination, inequity in education, limited access to resources and jobs, and underemployment. The cost of living in Princeton exacerbates these problems.

Princeton property owners know that property taxes are influenced largely by location, zoning, and a property’s future potential. While the WJ historic designation has slowed sales to speculators, somewhat reduced prices, and made demolition of existing homes more difficult, WJ residents know well that the historic designation alone cannot preserve the neighborhood’s character and provide security for WJ’s many homeowners, renters, and businesses.

To address these issues, WJDC commissioned a study, “Visioning a Master Plan for the WJ Neighborhood.” Using a well-established participatory planning process called “visioning,” this project began in May by consulting neighborhood residents and property owners about existing conditions. In a series of meetings, the neighborhood will begin to establish goals and explore opportunities. The next meeting will be in September.

The process of developing a WJ master plan is neighborhood-generated and will supplement community-wide planning efforts.

WJDC will continue supporting the WJ neighborhood through a variety of programs and is grateful for the community support it has received.

Chair/President for the Board of Directors of the Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation