April 10, 2024

Appropriate Balance is Needed for Design of Proposed Jugtown Addition

To the Editor:

One goal of the 2023 Princeton Master Plan is: “Balance historic preservation efforts with the public interest in smart growth, greater housing choice, sustainability, equity, and economic development.” The Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board now have an opportunity to do just that, balance important public interests raised by the pending application for a four-story, 21,000±square-foot addition to the 3,600±square-foot, two-story historic Hornor House in the Jugtown Historic District, at the northeast corner of Nassau and Harrison Streets.

The applicant, responding to the incentives offered by the municipality in adopting its Affordable Housing Overlay–2 zoning ordinance in 2020, proposes an inclusionary development with 15 apartments and 27.5 bathrooms, including three affordable units. Six units proposed on its third and fourth floors are two-story duplexes. To accommodate these apartments and 15 parking spaces, the applicant proposes a massive addition that would be more than five times the size of the existing building at 344 Nassau Street that would remain.

To approve this project under Princeton’s Land Use Code, the Planning Board, with the advice of the Historic Preservation Commission, must make specific findings spelled out in Princeton’s Historic Preservation Ordinance. For example, the Planning Board must find that the design “Is appropriate to and compatible with the existing structures and landscape of the historic preservation district.” As no other structure in the Jugtown Historic District has four stories or reaches the proposed addition’s 45-foot height, the proposed addition would loom behind, next to, and over the 18th century-scale Hornor House in an inescapable, incompatible aesthetic and regulatory conflict. It would also be out-of-scale, and thereby incompatible, with all other existing buildings in the Jugtown Historic District lots that overlap with the AHO-2 overlay zone. Among other findings, the Planning Board must find that “The height of the proposed structure is visually compatible with structures within the district …,” but all five existing historic buildings in the overlap have only two stories, except for one building that has a two-and-one-half story, early 19th century addition, while a second building has a three-story, 34-foot-high, 2022 addition. In my opinion as a professional planner, the Planning Board will not be able to make the required findings under the ordinance, unless the project is revised significantly.

Expanding housing choice by creating more affordable housing is important, as is preserving the scale and character of historic districts. We can do both in Princeton. A compromise is within reach. It’s up to the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board to strike the appropriate balance and insist on a scaled-back, appropriately designed, three-story, 35-foot maximum redesign that will still provide substantial affordable housing. The public review of this proposed development is slated to begin before the Historic Preservation Commission on Monday, April 15 at 4 p.m. in the Witherspoon Hall Municipal Building.

David N. Kinsey, FAICP, PP
Aiken Avenue