To the Editor:
On Thursday, April 1, the Princeton Planning Board will consider the designation of yet
another Area in Need of Redevelopment (ANR), the third such designation for Princeton
in fewer than five years. This time it is for properties comprising over 40 acres on or
near the Princeton Shopping Center.
As the Planning Board considers this option, we would like to offer a cautionary tale to
our friends and neighbors throughout town. The Area in Need of Redevelopment
designation will impact all of Princeton, so we would like to encourage all Princetonians
to pay close attention.
Almost any neighborhood could be shoehorned into meeting the definition of an Area in
Need of Redevelopment, although such a designation is not in the spirit of the statewide
law that established this redevelopment framework. Imagine how different the future
would be if the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood had been declared an Area in Need
of Redevelopment rather than designated our 20th historic district.
The Princeton Council should give careful consideration as to whether they intend to
continue to use this ANR designation, a designation not intended for a town like
Princeton, as the proper tool to redevelop many parts of Princeton.
In 2018, the Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) approached the town with their
strategic plan, which involved moving all of their student housing onto their Princeton
campus. To do so, they would need to redevelop the Tennent-Roberts Campus and the
Whiteley Gymnasium (TRW) parcels, located at the intersections of Stockton Street with
Hibben Road and Edgehill Street. Officials from the town advised PTS to consider using
the ANR pathway for their proposed redevelopment and PTS agreed to do so. PTS then
approached the neighbors about their plan, most of which seemed reasonable, and so the
neighbors didn’t object. A promised benefit to the neighborhood included addressing
issues such as stormwater runoff, traffic and parking in a holistic way. In addition to the
TRW properties, the final ANR designation included three historic single-family homes
on Stockton, Edgehill and Library Place, the open field on Mercer at Hibben, the Erdman
Center and the Adams House.
One of the expected benefits of the ANR designation is the ability for more input by the
public – a partnership among the residents, the town and the developer, if you will. Our
public meetings, held in 2018-19, were tightly controlled, and the greatest benefit seemed
to be the opportunity for the elected officials to understand our neighborhood. They
learned we have traffic and storm water issues. They learned that we are a historic
neighborhood bordering an educational institution, the type of neighborhood that the
Princeton Master Plan says requires special attention. They learned we are a gateway to
Princeton, and that the neighbors care deeply about the contribution of open space to the
gateway. What we didn’t learn, until it was too late, was that many large buildings would
be required to meet the needs of PTS, well over two times the underlying zoning – a
fundamental change to the entire neighborhood.
Many of us now regret not objecting to the ANR designation, and here is why.
The ANR designation allows the town and the property owner to dispense with current
zoning. Once the ANR designation for a neighborhood is approved by Council, it isn’t
going away. Regardless of whether a redevelopment plan is ever filed and regardless of
who ultimately owns the property, the designation remains. In our neighborhood, we had
a lengthy process in which the key element – the actual plan for the buildings – was not
disclosed to neighbors until far into the process – at which point the process derailed.
PTS had telegraphed earlier in the process that, if a suitable redevelopment plan was not
approved, PTS would look to sell the TRW campus. Thus, it was no surprise that PTS
offered the TRW campus portion of the ANR for sale last year; it is now under contract
to a private developer. Had the ANR originally been proposed by a private developer,
rather than a venerable education institution, we would have had serious objections, and
we would have encouraged the developer to rely upon the underlying zoning. The ANR
designation, in whole or in part, remains with the property. The town conferred
considerable value to PTS and any subsequent private developer while leaving our
neighborhood in limbo, a situation that threatens the character of one of Princeton’s
oldest historic neighborhoods.
We encourage all of Princeton to pay attention now – this could happen in your
neighborhood, too. Learn the facts about ANR and the impact it can have in your
neighborhood or other locations throughout our town. Once the Planning Board makes a
recommendation in support of an ANR, decision-making authority shifts to the Council.
Please understand that the town always has the potential to create new zoning without an
ANR, and the public would have safeguards and the opportunity for input. One of the
reasons that towns use the ANR is to move quickly by circumventing the established
zoning process. In Princeton, we need to ask if this is really necessary to achieve our
town-wide redevelopment goals.