November 27, 2019

W-J Development Corporation Moves Forward

By Donald Gilpin

Originally established in 1975 with a mission ”to preserve and maintain the quality of life and the integrity of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood,” the Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation (WJDC) has been an increasingly active force in the community over the past three years since its revival in 2016 after a long period of dormancy.

In its annual Report to the Neighborhood on Saturday, November 23 at the First Baptist Church, WJDC President Yina Moore reviewed the organization’s accomplishments during the past three years before a gathering of about 40 in the basement community room.

With the help of $1.25M granted and paid out in installments from Princeton University as part of a 2016 property tax lawsuit settlement, the WJDC has been able to fulfill its charge of “aiding and facilitating housing and related needs of economically disadvantaged residents” in the W-J district.

Moore cited the WJDC’s focus on housing assistance (property taxes, mortgage and rental payments, and other expenses), neighborhood restorations  (repairs, maintenance, renovations, and other improvements), and economic development (zoning, planning, mentoring, and further business development).

She went on to point out unusual challenges facing the 14-member board of directors, the 25-member advisory board, and the community, including rapidly growing land values and taxes, gentrification, under-employment and diminishing wealth, and systemic racism and redlining faced by longtime residents.

Among the initiatives set in motion by the WJDC in 2019 were the launching of a visioning study for the neighborhood to participate in determining its future course; purchasing a neighborhood house in need of repairs that WJDC will sell at an affordable, discounted price to a qualified buyer; identifying eligible Homestead Rebate recipients who qualify as longtime W-J residents for this year’s WJDC Property Tax Relief Program; identifying at-risk properties facing tax sale for intervention by WJDC; and working with neighborhood homeowners to identify and fund necessary repairs on their homes.

In addition, Moore reported that the WJDC supported the establishment of a two-week Entrepreneurship Summer Camp for 11 Princeton High School students who live in or are connected to the W-J neighborhood. The camp was administered by Princeton Public Schools and
featured field trips, presentations by local business owners, and a culminating product pitch competition.

In looking ahead, the WJDC, Moore stated, is looking to create a W-J Neighborhood Energy Initiative in partnership with a private technology company, banks, and battery and other equipment suppliers, in association with public utilities and investors in order to provide low-cost, self-generated electric service; revenues for solar power generators; State Renewable Energy Credits for homeowners; surplus energy revenues; battery storage transfer payments; and battery standby power during outages.

In further activity, led by advisory board members Shirley Satterfield of the W-J Historical and Cultural Society and Lori Rabon of Palmer Square, Inc., the WJDC is coordinating the redesign and replacement of the Paul Robeson fence.    

Following Moore’s report and a question-and-answer period, participants gathered in groups to discuss opportunities in visioning a master plan for the W-J neighborhood that will help to fulfill the organization’s mission “to preserve, restore, and sustain the historic character, diversity, and quality of life of the neighborhood.”

In a statement issued earlier this year, Moore noted that the WJDC is “concerned about the financial stability, environmental health, and wellness of a neighborhood for which limited incomes, deferred maintenance, and outdated building systems often present insurmountable challenges to many of its residents. The WJDC is particularly interested in sustaining the ownership, residency, and vitality of longtime Witherspoon-Jackson families that have been pushed out by rising property taxes, predatory lending, and the market forces of gentrification.”

The question-and-answer session focused on issues of transparency, fiduciary responsibility, and the need for more discussion and community involvement. The possibility of additional contributions to the neighborhood from Princeton University was raised. Also, eligible W-J residents were urged to apply for the New Jersey Homestead Rebate, since the rebate is used as a qualification for additional funds from Princeton University and the WJDC.

“It’s our job to help individual households through economic hardship,” Moore said. “We want to have residents who are invested in the neighborhood.”

She continued, “We have a very hardworking, experienced, diverse board. We are also happy to hear ideas from outside the board, from the neighborhood, and the whole community, especially from others from all over who are confronting some of the challenges we are confronting.”