Open letter to Princeton Council
Across Princeton, there is a great deal of enthusiasm among forward-thinking residents for creating more affordable housing and for mitigating climate change. During the May 6, 2023 roundtable on redevelopment of the lots on which Princeton Theological Seminary’s (PTS) Tennent-Roberts-Whiteley Gymnasium (TRW) campus formerly sat, Council President Mia Sacks said these two issues are national crises that would be irresponsible to ignore.
We agree and have a proposal that addresses both issues.
Based on press reports and other sources, the expected proposal from the private developer to redevelop the TRW lots is likely to be a luxury apartment complex with an underground parking garage for over 100 cars. Many of the large old-growth trees would be removed, resulting in a significant negative environmental impact. By law, there will be a twenty percent set aside for affordable housing. For this, we expect the developer would request and receive a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) from the Town, meaning taxpayers would be subsidizing the development.
The rents for these apartments, with the exception of the few affordable units, are unlikely to be affordable for many who would wish to live in Princeton. Projections for the Thanet Avalon project indicate that the expected rent for a 727 sq ft one-bedroom apartment will require an individual to be earning over $120,000 a year if the HUD guidelines on rent affordability at 30 percent of income are to be considered. This is more than twice the current salary of an experienced teacher or police officer and would freeze many out of living in Princeton.
We can do much better by addressing head-on the issue of too little affordable housing in Princeton and ensuring that the many old-growth trees remain in place.
By way of background, for nearly 90 years under PTS ownership, the TRW site was used for subsidized residential housing. The TRW site sits alongside Mercer Hill Historic District (MHHD), where 50 percent of the 140 buildings are owned by PTS or Princeton University and serve as subsidized residential housing.
PTS’s plan, which was embraced by many in the neighborhood, was to develop the TRW site for an expanded level of student housing. At the request of PTS, these 5 lots were designated an “area in need of redevelopment” (ANR) in 2018. That project eventually did not proceed.
To address the dual concerns of affordable housing and mitigating climate change in a meaningful way that would make a real difference to the Princeton community, we propose that the TRW site be dedicated to 100 percent affordable housing and be zoned as such under the ANR. As recent proposals by the Princeton Coalition for Responsible Development (PCRD) have shown, 50 affordable homes that respect the existing site and that are consistent with the neighborhood could be built.
This action is well within the powers granted to Princeton Council under an ANR. Under Redevelopment Law, a governing body has the power to:
1) Adopt a redevelopment plan of the town’s choosing.
2) Carry out a redevelopment plan or create a redevelopment authority to carry out a redevelopment plan.
3) Establish a redevelopment plan for the area that is developed specifically for the area and even for a specific project.
4) Establish a redevelopment authority that may issue Redevelopment Area Bonds to assist in financing development of the site.
5) Establish a redevelopment authority that may select a redeveloper for the site and enter into agreements and contracts with the redeveloper in support of effectuating the redevelopment.
By adopting this proposal, Princeton could bring together the various parties that are looking to provide significantly more affordable and eco-friendly housing in Princeton and become a model to others in the process.
This would be an imaginative solution showing leadership, and starts to move the town away from expensive luxury rental housing solutions that will involve extensive environmental damage, including the removal of all mature trees currently on the property, and potentially serious negative impacts on the water table and storm water runoff.