Princeton Planning board recently issued an FAQ to address what they felt were “rumors and misinformation about the contents and impact of the proposed plan have found their way into the public discourse.”
The Planning Board and staff believe that a thorough update is essential in order to guide growth in a responsible, sustainable, and equitable way: protecting Princeton’s historic assets and charm, fostering economic vitality, implementing smart growth principles, and responsibly addressing to housing affordability imperatives and the climate emergency.
Princeton urgently needs an updated master plan in order to successfully respond to climate change and the housing crisis, and to ensure that our planning goals are equitable, sustainable and compliant with current state statutes.
The Municipality is committed to enabling the development of more housing, particularly “missing middle” housing accessible to smaller households. This housing will be primarily within the downtown, the area surrounding it and the Princeton Shopping Center.
In many employment sectors, including sectors critical to Princeton’s local economy such as Retail and Accommodations and Food Services, the 2020 median monthly rent in Princeton of $1,704 is not affordable to an individual worker making the average wage for the sector.
This forces most workers to live somewhere more affordable and commute to work, generally by car, thus increasing traffic and demand for parking. In New Jersey, a home is generally considered to be affordable to a buyer if housing costs, including principal and interest payments, property taxes, and property insurance, consume 28% or less of an individual’s gross annual wages. (The lower percentage than rent is to account for additional home maintenance costs that renters do not incur.) Based on these statistics, there is no employment sector in Princeton in which an individual worker earns enough at the average salary to afford to purchase a home at the 2020 median home value in Princeton of $872,400. (It should be noted that the 2021 median home price in Princeton rose to $893,600.) In all but one of the 14 primary employment sectors, two such salaries are insufficient to afford a home at the median home value.
The Master Plan highlights how expensive it is to live in Princeton. The initiatives to provide 1 and 2 person accommodation through expanded Multi-Family building, have already led to the median rent being driven up.
To suggest that so called “missing middle” development will be more affordable than the home that is there at present, making it available to those that work in the local economy is seriously missleading, with external data suggesting it will be the opposite, especially in such a small town. The price of the small number of ADU’s that have already been built, confirms this.
The plan is a policy document, not a legislative one. It does not change zoning; only Princeton’s governing body can do that via the ordinance process. That said, zoning ordinances should be “substantially consistent” with a municipality’s master plan, so the Planning Board anticipates that zoning amendments will be crafted for Council’s consideration.
Enhance the existing pattern of land use by focusing higher residential density within and around the downtown and in mixed-use centers and maintaining progressively lower densities outside of the downtown.
Remove barriers to increased residential density in appropriate residential, commercial and mixed use districts to promote housing affordability, a greater variety of housing types and dwelling sizes to better fit a spectrum of household sizes and income levels, while balancing other goals of the Master Plan such as historic preservation and neighborhood scale.
The Master Plan as written, focusing on higher residential density, will require the new zoning approved by the Council to reflect the higher density outlined in the plan throughout the ‘Borough, Riverside, Institute and the central areas of Princeton. The FAQ is relying on semantics to claim that it does not impact zoning.
Even putting aside economics of affordability, assuming that this will reduce car traffic and pollution from the 24,000 people commuting into Princeton each day seems to ignore that there are only 10,000 households in Princeton. What is the increase in the number of households that is needed to have a meaningful impact on the number the number of commuting journeys?
The 10 land use categories provide generalized guidance for use if and when land use changes occur. These are shown on a per-acre basis, not a per-lot basis, and are based on existing zoning. Further analysis and outreach, including input from those most affected, will be needed to determine where changes should be made and what exactly they would look like.
The plan recommends that Princeton allow – not require, but allow – existing homes that are located relatively near to downtown and transit to be converted or retrofitted, to create multiple smaller units. These could be used as rentals to offset costs to “empty nesters” or could be used to house relatives in a way that promotes multigenerational living, which carries positive impacts. The point is to add options for housing diversity – if and only if homeowners want to utilize those options, or if they sell to a new owner that wishes to do so. Specifically, the recommendation (p. 45) reads “Study permitting the conversion of large single-family homes into attached dwelling residential buildings, particularly in neighborhoods near transit stops or with existing off-street parking.” “Study” means just that: proceeding with care, detailed analysis, and input from those who would be most affected.
While encouraging strategic increases in residential density in appropriate areas throughout the Municipality. Allowing neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown and the Shopping Center to add “gentle infill” will bring more households of small and medium size within walking distance of mixed-use nodes and their myriad amenities, significantly reducing the need for individual car trips and the resulting traffic congestion. The increases in residential density recommended in this Plan Element bring with them several benefits to taxpayers, including, significantly, a lower cost per household to deliver various services, from street and road maintenance to garbage collection to utility costs.
“The point that I want to make is that the number of dwelling units is only one measure of density. And there are others such as floor area ratio, the amount of floor area that's allowed per acre, the amount of impervious coverage that's allowed on a site.
The setbacks, you know, to neighboring properties on the side yards, the front yard, the rear yard setbacks. None of those are actually being proposed to be changed in any aspect of the I don't want to see any aspect (changed). I think one of the commenters mentioned that there are some talk about getting rid of the minimum open space requirement per dwelling unit. And that is a recommendation that's in the document. So I don't want to deny that. But many, many of these controls on how density impacts a neighborhood are not recommended to be changed.
When we suggest having more dwelling units be allowed on an individual piece of property, we're not talking about more square footage. We're just saying instead of one great big house, like that resident was complaining about, went up next to her, that it might be a nice seeming house that would actually have four dwelling units in it, or six, you know, depending on what neighborhood it's in, in a way that's appropriate to the neighborhood. So I really wanted to emphasize that that we're not talking about increasing amount of building when we're talking about increasing the number of dwelling units. And by the way, in answer to one of the other commenters, that's how you guarantee that developers will build smaller units that will be more affordable.”
All these statements say different contradictory things as part of an attempt to assuage the very legitimate concerns being expressed. It ranges from ‘convert larger homes by retrofitting’ through to 4-6 dwelling units being built with the same footprint through to ‘Strategic increases in residential density that will lower the cost of garbage collection??’ At the same time, page 47 of the master plan sweeps away effectively all the controls on density, floor area, height, setback and overnight parking restrictions. The FAQ it uses the word study while the Master Plan dictates an outcome, with the consequence that the town will be exposed to developer law suits if not implemented.
There is a need for new homes in Princeton. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), estimated in 2016 that by 2045 the Municipality’s population will grow to 32,360, a 5.3% increase from 2021.
Princeton Public Schools is currently preparing a plan to accommodate projected enrollment growth, and by late 2023 expects to select a plan for the next phase of renovation and construction to accommodate forecasted enrollment growth over the next five to seven years.
The projected 5.3% population increase in Princeton represents an increase over the next 23 years of 1,540 people. That is 67 people a year! This is hardly breakneck growth that requires massive home building.
The projected new multi-family housing of 1,100 units has less than 20% of this housing as guaranteed affordable. With this level of building already approved, it is adding approximately 1,500 to 2,000 people to the town’s population including over 200 children (Using the Master Plan figure of 0.19 children per unit) into an already overloaded school system. These numbers are considered by many to be on the low side. Most of these projects were given a PILOT tax break that excluded a contribution to schools through Property Taxes so the burden will be borne by existing taxpayers.
Going forward there needs to be a less developer centric approach to meeting affordable housing requirements. The impact on Princeton’s infrastructure could be enormous, effectively representing the next 20 years population growth.
What does “missing middle” housing really mean? Is it a price point, or a type of housing? Ideally, it is both. In planning parlance, however, it is more a type of housing than a price point. Nothing in a municipal master plan can control real estate market pricing. Princeton is a highly desirable location, for many excellent reasons. The town’s housing stock comprises mostly large, detached, single family homes that are very expensive. Many people who rent apartments in town would like to own a home but cannot afford to buy in Princeton. Adding more housing choices of a smaller scale would begin to address housing needs in Princeton and is one tool to stabilize prices. Locating those new homes in proximity to jobs, shopping, parks, leisure and transit enables a more affordable, sustainable and, to many people, a very appealing lifestyle.
The market will determine housing prices; Princeton’s housing prices and values probably will remain high relative to many other municipalities. There is an unmet demand in Princeton for smaller-sized homes to buy. Adding more modest-sized dwellings in walkable areas, as many in the community say they want and need, may well stabilize housing prices and provide a new price point.
The proposed master plan recommends providing additional options as alternatives to tearing down an existing home to build a much larger one. Recommendations include eliminating complex barriers that prevent the creation of duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes even where those building types are currently a permitted use, or adjusting the standards for accessory dwelling units to make it feasible to keep the existing house and build a small accessory dwelling unit in the rear of the lot. The proposed land use map does not propose allowing significant increases in the number of dwelling units per property.
The portion of the Municipality’s housing stock that has three bedrooms has dropped 20%, from 27.3% of all units to 21.9% of units, while the portion that has four or more bedrooms has grown 12.6%, from 36.6% of all units to 41.2% of all units.
Allowing greater density by easing certain zoning restrictions will help provide new Missing Middle housing. Princeton residents are generally interested in permitting more housing within and around the downtown, increasing flexibility to create ADUs, allowing single-family homes on small or undersized lots, allowing “tiny homes,” and permitting the conversion of single family homes into attached residential dwelling buildings.
Neighborhood areas are established neighborhoods characterized by some environmental constraints for future development and larger lot sizes than Central Neighborhood areas, that can support between two and eight units per acre.
Central Neighborhood areas include single-family dwellings on small lots, two-family dwellings, townhouses, and multi-family housing, at densities between four and 20 units per acre. These areas are characterized by the relative absence of environmental constraints, the availability of utilities and services, including transit, and close proximity to the downtown business district and Princeton Shopping Center.
Even in the FAQ there is no clarity around exactly what ‘Missing Middle” housing is. The letter continues to insinuate that there may be some aspect of affordability while stating that it is more a type of housing than a price point, while elsewhere stating that in Princeton house prices will continue to remain high. The change in the Master Plan to focus on increasing density combined with elimination of constraints will lead to widespread demolition of homes on larger lots, being replaced by multiple smaller premium homes. There is no guarantee they will be any more affordable or even sold versus rented. As with earlier development the ‘more affordable’ homes will be the first to go, pushing out middle income families.
Princeton’s elected leaders are not bound by law to act on every recommendation in the Master Plan. The Land Use Element of the plan, however, is required to be the basis for any zoning ordinance, and is the basis for many land use decisions, including decisions made by the municipality’s land use boards: the planning board and the zoning board of adjustment. Assuming the final draft of the plan is adopted, crafting zoning changes that add the Housing types/choices that are envisioned, in ways that speak clearly to form and fit, and anticipate the law of unintended consequences -- that is, getting it right -- will be painstaking (and interesting!) work that likely will unfold over years.
This is an experimental approach, which if adopted in its present form could seriously cause harm to Princeton and its residents. Developers have been exploiting inconsistencies in Princeton’s zoning laws for years.