Fulfilling the American Dream includes owning a home. But the possibility that future families occupying the affordable units in the Princeton Junction transit village may not have had the chance to do so — and would have only had the chance to rent — nearly tabled West Windsor’s revised settlement agreement with developer Steve Goldin.
By a vote of 3-2, the Township Council narrowly approved the settlement agreement with Goldin’s company, InterCap Holdings, in the eleventh hour on July 11 — but only after officials from three parties involved in the settlement agreed to replace some of the affordable rental units with for-sale affordable units.
Now, the final settlement will include 800 total units with 98 affordable units — 80 of which are rental and 18 of which are for sale.
"We are grateful for the leadership and support demonstrated last evening by council members (Kamal) Khanna, (George) Borek, and (Diane) Ciccone," said Goldin after the meeting. "By putting the interests of West Windsor taxpayers first, it takes West Windsor another step closer to enjoying the new shops, restaurants, and public gathering space the public has for so long desired.”
West Windsor had approved a settlement agreement in November, 2010, with InterCap. The plan called for 800 units with 760 market-rate units and only 40 affordable units — all of which would have been for-sale units.
Then the Fair Share Housing Center, which serves as an affordable housing advocate throughout the state, challenged the settlement. All three parties had been negotiating new terms for the agreement up until the July 8 court hearing.
The Fair Share Housing Center wanted more than just a 5 percent affordable component, and it wanted the opportunity to provide more rental possibilities during a time when mortgages are hard to obtain, even for market-rate buyers.
First, officials negotiated a plan that would have contained 820 units, with 100 being affordable rentals. Then on July 8, the plan was whittled back down to include 800 units, with 12.2 percent, or 98 units, being affordable rentals. Of the 98 affordable units, 50 percent would be moderate, 40 percent would be low, and 10 percent would be very low.
To make it more financially feasible for InterCap to build the additional affordable units, West Windsor originally agreed to use $900,000 of its $1.8 million affordable housing fund — a fund that accumulated from developer contributions — to pay for structured parking for the affordable housing units.
The revised plan was approved by Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg on July 8 — subject to Township Council approval. InterCap agreed to the settlement under the condition that it be approved by the West Windsor Township Council no later than July 11. Because the InterCap litigation was filed in May, 2009, as a Mount Laurel affordable housing lawsuit, Feinberg had to conduct a fairness hearing to determine it satisfied Mount Laurel principles and the Fair Housing Act.
However, heading into the July 11 council meeting, the developer agreed to drop the requirement that the township spend $900,000 to build the structured parking, after some council members voiced concerns behind the scenes.
But by 10:45 p.m. on July 11, it was clear that there were not enough votes of approval — unless Councilwoman Diane Ciccone could be assured that at least some of the families living in the affordable units could have the opportunity, at some point, to own a home at an affordable price.
"We have children in this township; they cannot afford to live here," she said. Responding to comments from residents who said that areas where affordable units are situated see more crime, she added: "It does not mean they are criminals."
"I do think we need to be a town that lives up to the standard that affordable housing is important to us," Ciccone added. "But they should have the opportunity to buy. I want to vote for this, but I want to see something more for people who might want to buy in this area" at an affordable price.
Throughout the meeting, council members, particularly Ciccone, kicked around the possibility that the plan could include a program that provides the "option to buy" or a rent-to-buy program, which officials said would be hard to do. In addition, it is even harder for a developer to obtain financing for a development when it is not certain whether the units will be rental or for-sale in the future, they said.
Frank Piazza, the township’s affordable housing consultant, also told the council that it is hard to find a property manager for the apartment component of the site when a number of rental units may convert to for-sale units later on.
When it became clear that the vote would have been 3-2 to turn down the settlement, Council President Kamal Khanna asked Richard J. Hoff Jr. of the Bisgaier Hoff law firm of Gibbsboro, the attorney for InterCap, whether his client would accept some for-sale affordable housing units on site.
Hoff told the council that he could make a phone call to his client, but it was the Fair Share Housing Center that had asked for the rental units. "The stumbling block is sitting over there," he said, pointing to Adam Gordon, the attorney with the Fair Share Housing Center.
Gordon agreed to breaking down the affordable units to include 80 that are rental and 18 that are for sale, and Hoff obtained approval from InterCap to go along with the revision — with the stipulation that the for-sale affordable units come from the portion that are "moderately" priced. In addition, no more than 35 percent of the units in each of the residential buildings will be affordable. The percentages of the moderate, low, and very low units will remain the same.
The fact that the negotiation took place at 11 p.m. — after most of the 30 residents in attendance went home — rankled Councilwoman Linda Geevers, who was opposed to the agreement because she felt it was being rushed through by the administration and the developer.
Geevers pointed to the redevelopment plan, which calls for a financial study of the project before moving forward. That InterCap has not provided a fiscal impact study — as residents in attendance called for — and that it will be provided instead at the site plan is "very late. What if it’s not tax-positive?" she asked.
Geevers said most of the discussion the council has had on the settlement was in executive session, and July 11 was the first time it was discussed publicly. "As a matter of process, I think it’s unfair the administration agreed to force us to vote tonight," she said. "It shouldn’t be rushed and pushed through."
She pointed to the total $2.6 million InterCap will pay the township for road improvements and the $683,000 in developer fees. The township engineer had already estimated the total cost of improvements associated with the project would be $3.3 million. "We are not getting any extra funds we wouldn’t already be guaranteed to receive," she said. Geevers suggested two council members be appointed to continue negotiating with InterCap over the next month.
Councilman Charles Morgan also voted against the project, saying that he was given "no opportunity to discuss it before tonight. That’s frankly obscene." He also alleged that the council was violating the rules of order for the meeting by negotiating with InterCap at the dais during the council comment period.
Morgan also said he wanted the ability to continue negotiating with the developer. Because the township already has a redevelopment plan adopted, it will need a developer to build the project, and to fail to work with Goldin would get rid of that development opportunity, he said. "I feel compelled to negotiate with him — but not with a gun to my head," he said. "The bottom line is I don’t think we are in a position to vote tonight."
Khanna and Councilman George Borek pointed to continued litigation costs that could occur if the agreement was not adopted.
"What we have is the best scenario," said Khanna. "I think it’s about time that we move forward."
Ordinances accompanying the settlement agreement will be on the agenda for introduction at the council’s next meeting on Monday, July 18. Once introduced, the ordinances will head to the Planning Board, which has 45 days to review the ordinances and make recommendations, if any, to the council before adoption.
The approved settlement agreement also reflects a change in the number of parking spaces for residential units, which will decrease from 1.5 parking spaces to 1.4375 spaces for each unit. The new settlement also reflects an agreement to extend the affordable housing controls for affordable units from 30 to 35 years.
Under the terms of the agreement, there will be no separate building for the affordable units. The 98 units will be dispersed throughout the project. All of the other elements of the November, 2010, settlement will go into effect.
The most notable feature of the settlement is a 50,000-square-foot "promenade" that would provide a public area for residents and a "shared space" between cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists. The integrated development would not include any office space. Under the agreement, InterCap will construct 100,000 square feet of retail space correlated to the phasing of residential units.
InterCap, Goldin, a township resident, had sued West Windsor over the redevelopment designation of the 350-acre area around the Princeton Junction train station, which included InterCap’s 25 acres off Washington Road.