February 22, 2023

Affordable Housing Overlay Ordinance Needs to Be Revisited and Revised

To the Editor:

In 2020, the town of Princeton passed an ordinance #2020-17 that implemented affordable housing overlays as a way of promoting residential development in town. By easing zoning restrictions for residential development in areas designated under the AHO ordinance, the town provided incentives for developers to build new residential housing that would include at least 20 percent affordable housing units. In 2023 we are beginning to see the impact of these eased rules on residents in and near these AHO districts, particularly in designated historic districts, where there are some unexpected consequences. We support the concept of AHO’s and the need to build affordable housing. The devil, as usual, is in the details. I believe the current ordinance needs to be revised.

At the Planning Board meeting of February 2, 2023, developer RB Homes presented a concept plan for development of 344 Nassau Street, at the corner of Nassau and Harrison streets. This project is in both the AHO-2 overlay and the Jugtown Historic District. Under the rules of the AHO, building requirements that are part of normal zoning are superseded by the AHO rules.  In short, the protections against overdevelopment of Jugtown are eliminated. This is not the case in the Jackson-Witherspoon AHO-7 approved in January 2023, where the role of the Historic Preservation Committee is affirmed.

What does this mean for the streetscape and neighborhoods? The proposal from RB Homes is for a flat-roofed building of four stories totaling 45 feet, dwarfing the peaked roof of the existing building that is only 29 feet. HVAC equipment would be permitted on the roof, further exacerbating the size discrepancy. There is no requirement for a setback on Harrison Street. The AHO ordinance calls for a maximum setback of only 10 feet, which is totally out of proportion to the existing residences and most other buildings in Jugtown. Parking is already an issue in the area, especially adjacent to this very busy intersection, where there is no street parking. The project proposes only 18 undersized parking spaces for 20 units, which is less than building code requirements.

It would be a grave mistake to suspend the protections afforded by the historic preservation laws. Our concern goes well beyond what this specific plan requests. If the four corners of the central, historic intersection of the Jugtown Historic District were to be developed according to the current AHO ordinance, the historic district would be overwhelmed by four-story buildings hulking over the much smaller existing historic offices and homes in the heart of Jugtown.

Historic preservation and affordable housing need not be in conflict. The AHO ordinance needs to be revisited and revised to balance both appropriately. There are existing locations in AHO-2 that are not within the historic district that are suitable choices for development.

The Princeton Historic Commission is due to hear the developer’s concept plan at its scheduled virtual meeting on February 27 at 4 p.m. (princetonnj.gov/588/Historic-Preservation-Commission). I encourage everyone’s input and participation in that review.

Donald F. Denny Jr.
Nassau Street