July 29, 2020

Council Approves Last of Affordable Housing Ordinances

By Anne Levin

In a marathon meeting that stretched past midnight on Monday, July 27, Princeton Council unanimously passed five ordinances, four of which make up the final pieces of the town’s Affordable Housing plan.

The governing body voted on the measures after hearing dozens of residents comment, through  emails read aloud by Mayor Liz Lempert and live via Zoom, on the two main ordinances — one on a site at the southern edge of Princeton Shopping Center; the other the Franklin/Maple site. Both projects will go before the Planning Board and Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB), and there will be additional opportunities for public involvement.

“This is the culmination of a multi-year process involving a lot of work of current and former Council members,” Lempert said earlier in the day, singling out former members Lance Liverman and Jenny Crumiller for special thanks. She reiterated the goals of the plan, including providing housing for low and moderate income households, using a mix of different approaches, spreading the sites throughout the town, and being situated close to jobs, services, and transportation.

The Princeton Shopping Center site is for 200 new homes including 44 affordable units. The development would “have a tremendous impact on the shopping center, which has a lot of vacancies,” said Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, who outlined the plan. “It will attract more tenants and customers. When you add 200 new residents along with the 200 that will be built at Thanet [a development planned for the northern end of the center], you’re adding significant economic impact.”

But at four stories, the plan doesn’t sit well with some neighbors who live on Clearview Street and Grover Avenue. One resident who said he represented 18 households directly behind the proposed development expressed concerns about scale, intensified activity, and noise, and said it was an invasion of the municipal land use law. Another resident asked why neighbors were not included in the planning.

“Though we support affordable housing, we feel hoodwinked,” she said. “We would like a say in the design of this development.” Lempert said the plan has been the subject of multiple public meetings and has been reported on in local media. She asked that people email her with suggestions for the best way for the town to keep residents abreast of plans.

Town resident Kip Cherry expressed disappointment in the height of the development, and said there was no chance for the public to comment on the concept plan. She also said residential housing should be incorporated into the existing shopping center structure instead of “an appendage,” and said the wood construction could create a fire hazard.

Lempert replied that the town had approached Eden’s, which owns the shopping center, about doing just that, “but they didn’t go for it.” Councilwoman Mia Sacks added, “It wasn’t just that it wasn’t financially viable. It wasn’t structurally viable to build that way. And it would have completely disrupted the existing tenants. We have concerns for these small business owners as well. I think we all agree with you that it would have been a preferable plan.”

Resident Martha d’Avila said none of the neighbors oppose affordable housing. “This is a great site and a great place for density,” she said. “But I have an issue with the process, and the fact that we are using that plan as the driver for what is going to happen here in the future.”

Councilman David Cohen, who with Sacks and Lambros was on a special subcommittee devoted to the plan, reiterated that all of the details are up for negotiation. “But we have to balance interests of neighbors with affordable housing and the interests of the shopping center. Sometimes these are hard decisions to make.”

Not all of the comments were negative. Several people spoke and emailed in favor of the plan, and thanked the governing body for their work in bringing it to the final stages.

Two of the ordinances passed are related to the Franklin/Maple site. One, which is part of the town’s affordable housing obligation that will be submitted for approval to the Superior Court on August 12, is for 80 units, all of which are affordable. A second ordinance that is not part of the settlement is for up to 160 units.

The site is made up of three parcels. The Princeton Housing Authority has had affordable units at two of them since 1939. The third is currently a largely unused parking lot. There have been several potential partners suggesting ways the site could be divided, and the subcommittee met with them this past January.

Sacks said the subcommittee had a list of goals they wanted to accomplish for the site, including providing 80 credits of affordable housing; qualifying and obtaining a nine percent tax credit for a mixed income project; planning for appropriate density in accordance with smart growth design; providing a realistic opportunity to develop the entire, three-lot parcel simultaneously; maintaining neighborhood character; and addressing Princeton Housing Authority’s interests related to longtime occupancy of the site.

“We have come up with a plan that meets all of these objectives,” she said, adding, “This is just the beginning of the process and we will issue an RFP (request for proposal) for the design. We will also ask the Planning Board to look at the three sites for possible redevelopment designation.”

Some neighbors spoke in favor the 80-unit, all-affordable plan, while others supported the larger proposal. Anita Garoniak said that while everyone in the neighborhood supports affordable housing, 160 units is too many. “We care about our neighborhood and the quality of life and the quality of life for neighbors to come,” she said. “We have concerns that this [160 units] will have a drastic impact on the character of our neighborhood.”

Michael Floyd said he supports the smaller proposal. “I feel strongly that plans to build up to 160 units on a 3.2-acre site are unacceptable,” he said. “In my opinion, the ordinance completely violates the neighborhood character, which is part of the master plan.” He urged Council to revise the ordinance to a much lower number of units and make it less divergent from the surrounding neighborhood character, with lower heights, impervious cover, and mandating 20 percent open space.

The fifth measure to be approved was a bond ordinance for several capital projects including improvements to Witherspoon Street, Hilltop Park, and Rosedale Road; and stormwater drainage to the solar field at River Road. In addition, Council passed a resolution to purchase body cameras and video cameras in cars for Princeton Police.