September 13, 2023

WJNA Meeting Crowd Participates, Challenges W-J Development Corp.

By Donald Gilpin

The Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation (WJDC) was in the spotlight at a lively meeting of the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA) attended by more than 60 people on Saturday, September 9 at the Arts Council of Princeton on Paul Robeson Place.

“The basic overall community opinion was that they want Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation to be more transparent,” said former Princeton Councilman and community leader Lance Liverman. He went on to mention the need for an improved website for finding information, adding, “We want them to do more reporting back to the community — what they’re doing, what they’re funding.”

Princeton Councilman Leighton Newlin, who co-chaired the meeting, applauded the “great information exchanged” on Saturday, but noted, “There was definitely a call for greater transparency and accountability.” He added, “We’re at a crossroads and this is a critical time for homeowners in Princeton.”

Of particular concern, and the subject of a number of questions from the attendees, was the home at 31 Maclean Street that the WJDC purchased in 2019 and intended to sell to a qualified buyer at an affordable price, but has not yet done so.

The WJDC was originally established in 1975 with a mission “to preserve and maintain the quality of life and the integrity of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.”  After a long period of dormancy, it was revived in 2016 with the help of a $1.25 million grant from Princeton University, as part of a property tax lawsuit settlement.

Target beneficiaries of WJDC programs include those who have suffered the impacts of rising housing costs, taxes, and gentrification. The WJDC website states, “WJDC is concerned about and focused on assisting the long-time W-J residents, their descendants or heirs, and those with deep roots in the W-J neighborhood.”

“The organization is working to keep folks in their homes in the W-J area,” said Liverman, noting that the most important part of the meeting was the question-and-answer session, which followed an extensive and detailed update on the organization’s past, present, and future

presented by WJDC President Yina Moore and the WJDC board of directors.

“I expected the house at 31 Maclean Street would be turned over to an appropriate family by now,” said Liverman, “but they said they have not done that. That was the purpose: buy the house, fix it up, and sell it as an affordable house to a family that had ties to the neighborhood, but it’s still sitting there, and there were a lot of questions about that.”

Moore stated that they are trying to sell the Maclean Street house as soon as possible, hopefully by the end of this year.

Liverman raised a concern over the expenses for taxes since the house was purchased four years ago. “That’s a lot of money going out in taxes, with nobody in the house, and it not being used,” he pointed out.

Other issues brought up in Moore’s report and the ensuing discussion included the WJDC’s initiatives to help people through grants and loans to pay for house repairs and taxes. Moore also spoke about gifts to the WJDC from individuals who have left money in their wills.

Liverman described a “good meeting with a lot of questions” and “a packed house.” He continued, “I am hopeful that this new WJDC that has started back up can support members of the community in maintaining their homes and also help them with taxes. By doing that we can help to maintain the community.”

He went on to reflect on a positive trend he has perceived in the community. “I don’t know exactly when it happened, but right after COVID, or maybe it was during COVID, people started caring more about this community, it seems.  There are more people at meetings, more people online. They had to keep bringing out more chairs for this meeting.”

Terry McEwen, a former resident of Witherspoon-Jackson and former board member of WJDC whose family has roots in the community going back to the 19th century, expressed optimism about the future of the WJDC’s efforts, but he was not pleased with their report on the past three years that he described as “vacant of any activity.”

McEwen has been in conversations with Moore and the WJDC about the opportunity for his son to purchase the 31 Maclean Street home. “This is an opportunity for my son to continue our family legacy in Princeton,” he said.

McEwen is eager to see the WJDC follow through on its mission for qualified candidates, and he noted, “The next few weeks will tell as the WJDC works with the applications that come in for the Maclean Street house.”

He continued, “We are hopeful that the WJDC will embrace their mission and what the WJDC is all about in a vibrant way —and we move forward.”

He described a high level of participation at the meeting with a lot of questions asked about homes in the area. “The mood was one of people who had previously been discouraged looking at the chance for something positive to come out of this,” he said.

Other important items on the WJNA agenda Saturday included a presentation by Deputy Administrator/Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton and Assistant Municipal Engineer Jim Purcell on the three phases of the Witherspoon Street Corridor project and a presentation by the League of Women Voters providing voter information and assisting with voter registration and vote-by-mail forms.