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TRW, the big reveal

Last Tuesday evening, Mr. Herring, the contract purchaser of the Tennent-Roberts campus and Whiteley Gymnasium, and his team presented highlights of a plan for the redevelopment of the TRW campus sites. A group of housing advocates – many of whom spoke at the May meeting – read from prepared remarks. Several also commented on the renderings prepared by the architectural firm in an overwhelmingly positive way. The detailed information behind the drawings has yet to be released.

As we all know, visuals from architects are designed to sell. We believe in the case of this project there needs to be a more careful detailed inspection ‘under the hood’.

This project proposes to build 238 ‘units’ at a density the developer claims to be +/- 49 units an acre. The actual density is likely higher since this figure includes a house and land in the Mercer Hill Historic District. Comparisons with other developments were used to claim that the density is in the ‘middle of recent new or approved developments. This was a somewhat generous selection. The only developments with greater density being small town center projects and the Princeton Shopping Center, which is not surrounded by residences. The good news is that it includes 48 affordable ‘units’; the mix of these units has not yet been shared. This is the minimum number of units the developer is obliged to provide and given the scale of what is proposed it would ideally have more. These will stay affordable for 40 years and then revert to the building owner as market rate rentals.

The developer said that the land coverage of the buildings is 40%. When all impervious surfaces are considered -- roads, parking and walkways -- the total coverage is 65%. This is more than 3 acres and is very substantial. A comparison would be Princeton Shopping Center, that oasis of black-top parking, which before the recent redevelopment activity was at 72.1% impermeable surface coverage, per a report prepared for the town by the Watershed Institute. The 65 % coverage at TRW will be on a steep hill in an area with known flooding and runoff issues, especially in the historic district on Mercer st.

The building plan includes 221 parking spaces underground, a surface lot of 20 cars, and additional 40 cars parked on the internal ‘cul de sac’ for visitors. This is a lot of cars and yet it falls short of the 1.97 spaces per unit that is required by the State’s Residential Site Improvement Standards or even the recommended 1.41 cars per unit from a recent Rutgers study. Both of these standards are using data, and the lowest ratio shows the project is short by over 50 cars. In response to a question about whether this project included the number of parking spaces required by current zoning, the town said that the ratio of parking spaces to units was the same as other recently approved developments. Currently, these developments are in various stages of construction so the validity of these assumptions is not proven nor the outcome experienced. The location of this development is in an area that does not allow overnight street parking. The question of where additional parking could be accommodated was not addressed.

In response to a question about planned rent levels, Mr. Herring gave ranges that were the same as those of the existing and planned 1,000+ units that have either entered or are planned to go on the market in Princeton. He also confirmed that a tax break in the form of a PILOT agreement had not been discussed, neither had an estimate for the number of additional children that would be attending local schools.

The complex will comprise of 6 large blocks, predominantly 4 stories highwith step downs as it gets nearer streets. These buildings will be 48 feet from grade to the bottom of the roof and they appear to be raised to level on a site that has a 17 foot natural slope from front to back. While we do not have the roof heights, we can assume that the height from grade is close to 60 feet. Given that the site for this building is on the highest point in Princeton at 208ft above sea level, it will be visible as one of the highest groups of buildings in Princeton. Princeton is cited as being 109 feet above sea level.

There is a natural concern that this development will tower over the Mercer Hill Historic District and family homes further down the slope. In some cases, it is shown as 48 feet high, on land that is being raised from current grade level, starting 30 feet from the property line of a number of properties.

Environmentally it appears that the 20+ old-growth mature trees will be cut down and it was alluded to that some of the majestic London Plane street trees that define the road would also be removed. It is not clear how or where these trees will be replaced and with what. Very little was covered in the presentation on what would contribute to green elements other than every apartment would have ‘energy star appliances’, is there another sort?

We hope to have more details in the near future.

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