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Master Plan Madness

The proposed new Princeton Master Plan is in the final stages of development and approval. The process adopted by the Master Plan Committee is commendable in that it made many efforts to engage citizens of Princeton in their months -long task of creating the new 2023 Master Plan for the municipality. It’s refreshing to have the Town actively reach out through surveys, open houses, and listening sessions. We acknowledge the time and energy given to the crafting of the final product.

The downside of the process is that a 237-page document that will have a profound effect on the lives of the members of the community is too detailed to be digested by the public in a ten-day period. What we have been able to glean so far is alarming and deserves a much longer lead time for the community to be able to give educated responses.

Although it may seem remote from your daily life, this document will have a profound impact, as it will guide planning and zoning decisions for the next 20 years. While it is claimed that there were 7,000 responses to various surveys and meetings, the reality is that the participation came from a much smaller number of individuals, often in response to very structured, agenda-led questions.

The plan, includes radical proposals that could reshape Princeton by increasing housing density fourfold by encouraging single-family homes to be replaced with 1-4 unit residences.

The motivation behind this push for density is puzzling. It aims to "infuse new life into the downtown and Princeton Shopping Center area," even though these are investor-owned retail developments with high occupancy rates. High rents have already driven many shops and restaurants away, so the solution of increasing density may not address this issue effectively. At the merchant listening meeting, the merchants were unanimous in their desire for more parking and improved traffic patterns. They are missing the residents we already have due to congestion and already limited parking in town. That is before we add a new 180 bedroom hotel with 70 parking spaces, a 300 person capacity bar and restaurant and a new world class art museum at the University.

The plan proposes increasing density through residential growth, with a focus on "missing middle" housing for smaller households in the downtown and surrounding areas. However, this assumption is questionable at best.

The plan raises the issue of whether the sizes of the homes match the household size. It points out that many residents live in homes larger than their apparent needs, resulting in a significant housing stock mismatch. Many people,however, use extra bedrooms for offices, exercise rooms, and visiting friends and family. To suggest that they are over housed is so simplistic and potentially incorrect that it should not be the basis for 20-year planning decisions. It’s also worth noting that the increase in the size of homes in Princeton over the last decade is mainly due to developers purchasing entry-level homes, demolishing them, and replacing them with larger ones. This has contributed significantly to the loss of the affordable "middle" housing.

The proposed solution is to rezone the old Borough, Institute area, Riverside, and the Princeton Shopping Center to allow 1-4 dwelling units. The intention is for homeowners to add units without tearing down existing structures, but great skepticism exists about the feasibility of this approach. In their own words, “We want folks to add units. We don’t want you to tear down things to do it.” “It's not the plan to regulate according to density. It's a plan to regulate according to what fits in the neighborhood and within the existing framework of lots and buildings so that the character -- the spatial character -- is not disturbed”. The flaw here is the assumption that the majority of property owners will start building additional housing in their yard that they will either sell or rent. Many homeowners already have the ability to add a second dwelling to their properties via the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance, which allows for one small residence to be added to a residential property. Not many homeowners have done so to-date so, logically, why would they embrace the ability to add three?

It’s not going to happen.

Instead,what will almost certainly happen is that developers will do what they did to all the smaller homes: buy, demolish, and replace with multiple homes that they can sell at an even higher price.

The plan includes various other changes, such as eliminating height regulations by stories, eliminating minimum lot area requirements, allowing penthouses above maximum building height, reducing open space and yard requirements, simplifying floor area ratios, and reducing off-street parking requirements. These changes are not for existing homeowners benefit, but should be viewed as enabling developers to build in a way that potentially degrades neighborhoods.

Princeton's current situation could be attributed in part to following developer-led initiatives focused on profit maximization. There's an ongoing experiment with an increase in the number of households in Princeton by 10 percent, all of which will be rental properties.

The plan to increase the number of households through large investor-owned multi-family housing projects has been committed to, but it seems that this is not the solution in terms of the impact on affordable "missing middle" housing. Rents across the 4 or so large developments recently constructed, or due to be completed soon, are all very high and virtually identical. They are not coming to Princeton to lower rents but to take advantage of the high rents that exist. These developments will increase density, impact existing infrastructure and contribute to increased land use and climate vulnerability.

There's no evidence that developers will build affordable smaller properties or that smaller properties, if built, will be any more affordable.

The lack of a clear definition for what should be built and where, leaves us with an outcome that is potentially damaging and expensive for the community. Princeton will be forced to live with the consequences of changing zoning rules for most homes, which could stand for 25 years.

The plan mentions preserving historic neighborhoods but weakens the preservation effort when it calls for 'balance'. That will create an unacceptable level of uncertainty for every homeowner and future home owner and will open the door to development inside these neighborhoods.

It is stated that there's a housing shortage in Princeton that affects various aspects of life, including traffic, parking, and economic growth. While developing more housing, especially affordable housing is beneficial, the developer-centric approach we have been using may continue to worsen affordability and infrastructure, potentially causing uncertainty and disruption to residents.

There is no mandate for such a radical change.

This matter should not proceed without a public vote.

What you can do?

Share this information with friends, neighbors and on Social media.

Attend the planning board virtual meeting at 7.00 pm on Nov. 9th

Contact council, see details below and let them know where you stand:

Mayor Mark Freda

Council Pres. Mia Sacks

Council Members:

Leighton Newlin

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