To pragmatic house hunters, Green Street offers checkmarks in all the critical boxes.
Location. Green is the first residential street off Witherspoon Street as you walk down from Princeton’s busy central business district. At the corner of Green and Witherspoon are the birthplace of Paul Robeson and the Arts Council of Princeton, with the public library kitty corner from that.
Affordability. The Green Street houses that back onto Paul Robeson Place face four-story, $1.9 million brick townhomes with elevators and an attached parking garage. A few blocks to the north AvalonBay’s new Witherspoon Street rentals, at the site of the old hospital, start at $2,250 a month for a 500-square-foot studio. Older houses on Green Street and the surrounding neighborhood can still be had for around $500,000. After ponying up a down payment, the monthly nut could easily beat the rental competition.
Small houses on relatively large lots. That’s last on this checklist but certainly not least given the trend in Princeton real estate these days — tear downs. As you turn off of Witherspoon and walk down Green, ultra-contemporary new construction greets you on both sides of the street. Numbers 11 and 12 Green Street are the newest and most expensive houses on the block, assessed at double the value of neighboring homes.
And there is now one Green Street property on the market, and it is very ripe for a tear down. Listed a year ago, the house at 20 Green Street appears unsalvageable, rundown and boarded up after years of vacancy.
The asking price of $825,000 is unprecedented on Green Street, and the sellers readily admit that the value is not in the house but rather the 42 by 120 foot lot. Despite the sky high price, a buyer might be encouraged by the two new houses on Green Street. With a lot area of 5,000 square feet, a high-end, 2,200 square feet house could be built on 20 Green with nothing more than a building permit.
At least that was the case until April of this year, when Princeton Council voted to make the Witherspoon-Jackson community, an enclave of roughly 400 properties on 10 streets, including Green. The historic designation adds another layer of zoning to properties in Witherspoon-Jackson, an overlay that gives the town’s Historic Preservation Commission greater oversight to forestall nonconforming teardowns.
A Green Street resident, former borough mayor Yina Moore, was one of the leading advocates of the historic designation. At the April Planning Board meeting that enacted the ordinance, Moore decried the “tightening noose of financial interests of developers.”
“Witherspoon-Jackson for so long has been maligned, from a racist perspective, as an African-American neighborhood,” Moore said in an interview. “Realtors have made disparaging comments, the same ones that are putting million dollar prices on houses in the neighborhood. Now they’re trying to capitalize on what is an investor-motivated development.”
Will this historic designation be enough to reverse the decades-old trend of converting low and middle income housing into high-end commercial and residential properties? Time will tell, but residents of the community already have shown that they are not sitting back, simply waiting to see.
Earlier in the year, 24 neighborhood residents added their names to the pending Tax Court lawsuit against Princeton University, litigation initiated by four fixed-income retirees seeking property tax relief. Now a group plans to resurrect the Witherspoon Development Corporation, a nonprofit originally led by former township mayor Jim Floyd that helped finance 23 home purchases in the neighborhood beginning in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the nonprofit also sued the borough for exclusionary zoning.
“I think it takes more than just an ordinance for preservation,” says Lance Liverman, a town councilman who lives in his childhood home on Witherspoon Street and owns several other houses in the neighborhood. “I do think [the ordinance] will preserve the way the neighborhood looks, but a neighborhood is the people also. You need a funding source to help with purchases. The ordinance is one piece of the puzzle.”
To understand this puzzle it pays to know some history. No 21 Green Street, across the street from the prospective tear-down, offers a sense of how unusual this community is. Bob Rivers, now in his mid-80s, grew up at 21 Green and moved back with his wife this past year.
The family house dates back to the early 19th century. A free black woman purchased the house in 1844 from the son of the Princeton University president, James Green.
Rivers’ parents — his mother worked as a live-in domestic. and his father worked for 43 years as an eating club servant and dormitory janitor — purchased the house in 1935.
The neighborhood of Bob Rivers’ youth was rich in some ways, including the education provided by Witherspoon School for Colored Children. A K-8 school for the segregated black community, the school on Quarry Street eventually became the Princeton Nursing Home after the public schools were fully integrated in 1948. While integration was a hard-won social victory, residents who experienced the transition say the immediate quality of education in the integrated schools was inferior to that of the Witherspoon School.
Rivers praises the school as he reels off his later academic accomplishments: one of three black students in Princeton University’s Class of 1953, an MD from Harvard Medical School, professor of clinical surgery at the University of Rochester, and in 1969 the first African-American to be elected a Princeton University trustee (The Echo, February, 2016). In May Rivers received an honorary degree from Princeton University. Several weeks later he attended his granddaughter’s graduation from Princeton High School, 67 years after his own. (All his children also have advanced degrees and his daughter, a physician associated with Princeton Nassau Pediatrics, and her family moved to Princeton several years prior and live in the house right next door.)
The name of the neighborhood is itself a reflection of the forces at work over the years. Witherspoon-Jackson is named after its street boundaries: the neighborhood begins at Birch Avenue and runs “uptown” toward the central business district along Witherspoon Street to Paul Robeson Place, which was originally named Jackson Street.
Even before Jackson Street was razed, another street, Baker Street, closer yet to Nassau, had been replaced by the Palmer Square development during the Great Depression. Longtime residents can still recall parents, uncles, and aunts who were relocated from Baker Street to the current neighborhood confines.
Despite this erosion, for most of the 20th century the Witherspoon Jackson area (also known as John-Witherspoon, a name reflecting the street that runs parallel to Witherspoon) was the only place in town where blacks could purchase a home, and it was also an integrated neighborhood where working class Irish and Italian families settled. The neighborhood featured small businesses of all sorts that provided services to blacks who were otherwise denied access to establishments in town.
Green Street was a bustling community locale. On the Witherspoon Street end was the “Branch Y.” Now home to the Arts Council, the building was constructed in the late 1930s after the original Colored YMCA burned down. (Later on the Joint Civil Rights Commission offices were located on the same corner.)
Anchoring the other end of the Green Street block is another center of community activity, the First Baptist Church, built in 1885. On John Street facing Green is the Dorothea House, built in 1913 to serve Italian immigrants and still operating as a cultural center.
In the 1950s, shortly after the homes on Jackson Street were deemed “blighted” and demolished, a similar plan was proposed for half of Green Street. But this “urban renewal” plan was beaten back by local residents, a battle documented in newspaper reports at the time. The Borough Housing Authority plan would have leveled more than a dozen residences and relocated the First Baptist Church, all to build a 30-unit public housing project on less than an acre of land.
Accompanying the plan was the installation of a main road, parallel to Nassau, that would have replaced houses on the south side of Green Street. Residents in opposition formed the John-Witherspoon Civic Association, citing the proposal’s high density and the fact that blacks, barred from purchasing houses in other parts of Princeton, would have difficulty securing alternate housing.
The 1980s featured skyrocketing home values and also saw an influx of Haitian and Dominican families. A 1986 Town Topics article describes efforts by Borough Mayor Barbara Sigmund to “buy down” neighborhood houses in response to price surges. Houses had previously been selling for above the assessed valuation but were now on the market for more than double the assessed values. For example: 7 Green Street, which was assessed at $51,300, sold in 1984 for $64,000, and was then on the market in 1986 for $125,000.
Paper gains in property value also led to higher property tax assessments, accelerating the displacement of longtime residents. The New York Times ran articles in 1981, 1986, and 2001 on the neighborhood’s shrinking black enclave. By 2001 Hispanic immigrants had settled into the neighborhood and today the Hispanic population outnumbers the African-American population.
In 2008, in what is considered the first of the new wave of tear downs, the duplex at 16-18 Quarry Street, one block north of Green Street, was razed. The old duplex was acquired in 2003 for $280,000. It was replaced by the Robert Hillier-designed, high tech structures clad in polycarbonate and zinc and featuring floor to ceiling windows and elevators. After several months on the market at the height of the real estate bubble, each unit sold for $930,000. Today each unit is assessed for $866,000.
Neighbors worried then about the lack of front porches on the new houses, a social staple in the neighborhood, and expressed concern that Hillier’s “urban insertion” would be a model inspiring more tear downs and replacement with ultra-modern and much more expensive houses.
Builders and, more recently, upgrading homeowners, have indeed followed suit. North of Quarry, Lytle Street features six new houses, and there is a recently completed teardown at 11 Birch. A vacant lot at 75 Leigh Avenue, 40 by 100 feet, was purchased in 2015 for $295,000. According to architect Marina Rubina, who the owners have hired to design the house, the property has zoning approvals that precede the passage of the preservation ordinance and so Historic Preservation Commission review will not be required.
Shirley Satterfield, a fourth generation Princetonian who lives three doors down from the first Quarry Street teardown, has felt the pressure. An alternate member of the Historic Preservation Commission, Satterfield has a lifelong interest in the neighborhood and leads Historical Society tours. Her house is filled with neighborhood heirlooms that have ended up in her possession over the years. There’s the bench from Jimmy Mack’s Barbershop on John and Quarry Streets. Across the room is a pew from the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, where she is a deacon, displaced after a renovation.
“My house is like a museum,” Satterfield says, but the interest in her collectibles has been overshadowed by other outside interests. Satterfield says she has received multiple unsolicited offers for her house, offers promising quick closes without the need for a real estate broker.
“It’s just annoying for people waiting for you to die so they can buy your home,” said Satterfield, who retired as a Princeton High School guidance counselor in 2010. “There are scavengers, waiting to see what property they can get in the community.”
Right next door at 28 Quarry Street, a new modular home occupied by architect Marina Rubina was installed in 2012.
That house had previously been owned by Yina Moore’s uncle, Bryan Moore. He was the first black attorney at the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office and a founder of the John Witherspoon Civic Association, the group that successfully fended off urban renewal in the 1950s.
Moore says her brother rejected several offers by developers and decided to sell the property to Rubina and her husband, a professor at Princeton University, in 2009 for $420,000. Moore says the buyers claimed to have been interested in living in the house with some improvements.
Rubina ultimately installed a new contemporary modular on her property, which is currently assessed at $842,700.
Back on Green Street the new construction shows dramatically how values in the neighborhood are changing. The property at 12 Green, one house away from the Arts Council, sold for just $325,000 in 2011. Three years later the new owners sold it for $600,000 to architect Leslie Dowling and her husband, restaurateur Carlo Momo. They in turn tore down the old house and built a 2,200-square-foot contemporary house, which includes a home office and a backyard with an airy wooden fence and direct access to the central business district, through a wooden door with a combination lock.
When reached for comment she said the designation is a “sensitive topic” and declined to discuss further.
Across the street from 12 Green is 11 Green, which may be the outstanding example of the forces that led to the tear down of an original house in favor of an urban insertion. The house had been owned by Ann Harris Yasuhara, who died in 2014. A longtime computer science professor at Rutgers, Yasuhara was an old school Quaker activist involved in numerous social justice causes. She was a founding member of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Not in Our Town (NIOT).
Yasuhara lived in Princeton but not at 11 Green Street, which she acquired in 2001. “She supported every possible cause,” said Barbara Figge Fox, Yasuhara’s cousin. (Fox is also a senior correspondent with U.S. 1 newspaper, a sister publication of the Echo). “Owning and renting the house on 11 Green Street was part of her support to the Latino community.”
Fox was an executor of her relative’s estate, and 11 Green Street attracted considerable attention. One bidder said he would top any bid by $1,000. However, the executors requested letters of intent alongside any offers. “Profit had never been her motivation., Fox said. “We knew she supported the integrity of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.”
Efforts to preserve 11 Green Street as affordable housing fell through after the Princeton Housing Authority showed no interest because of the house’s condition. The First Baptist Church, which owns and leases out six properties on Green Street at below-market rent, declined also.
Lance Liverman, who chairs the church’s board of trustees as well as the church’s real estate committee, did a walk-through of the house. “The house was fine for a family like you or me to buy and move into,” said Liverman, who directed the church’s last acquisition, 14 Green Street, more than 20 years ago. “If I’m going to buy and rent it out, there are different standards. The floors were slanted, part of the home was leaning. It needed structural and foundation work, new utility systems. There was a buried oil tank. The previous owner let a Latino family live there, she was putting a roof above someone’s head, but it would take at least $100,000 to fix it up to our standards.”
The next best scenario was selling the house to potential buyers who would keep the house as-is, but eventually it could still end up in the hands of a developer. “Three houses away from Witherspoon Street, that location was begging to be flipped,” Fox said. “There were builders we would not sell to then and the same is true now.”
Moreover, Yasuhara had not donated the property, and so the executors had a fiduciary responsibility to estate beneficiaries.
Ultimately, the estate sold the property to architect Marina Rubina for $419,000, a price more than $20,000 below the highest offer. “We believed she would do as much as anybody to preserve the architectural integrity of the neighborhood, that she would not design something obnoxious,” Fox said. “Our attempts to preserve would have been buttressed by the current historic preservation ordinance. We would have had the assurance that builders would toe the line on the integrity of the neighborhood.”
Rubina declined to discuss the new ordinance. As for her project at 11 Green Street, Rubina says she has designed the house for a specific family.
“The architecture I like, that people hire me to design, are modern houses,” Rubina said. “I worked really hard to make it a contemporary house that would fit in. It’s a combination of traditional materials on the lower facade, with a taller portion of the house set back.” Rubina notes that two additional features of her designs orient the house toward the street: porches and kitchens that face the front.
When asked if the Historic Preservation Commission would approve the house designs at 11 and 12 Green Street if they had been submitted after the historic designation went into effect, HPC chair Julie Capozzoli said, “I would guess that we would have probably been more collaborative and would have tried to emphasize features in the neighborhood that represented the architectural style. I think they would have been more than happy to work with us.”
The next property on Green Street to come into “play” very likely will be the dilapidated structure 20 Green. Before the house’s current fate as an exorbitantly priced piece of developable land, 20 Green Street was known as one of the nicest houses on the street, belonging to one Bertha Hill Brandon.
Bob Rivers calls Brandon an “original community activist.” She was a founder of the Friendship Club in 1932, from which Rivers received a scholarship. Affiliated with the NAACP, the group supported art, education, and other causes, sponsoring concerts by such artists as Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson.
The house at 20 Green had long been a boarding house. A Historical Society photograph of Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, appears to show him outside the house. Brandon continued hosting lodgers, providing transitional housing for teachers and YMCA directors new to town.
The current owners of the long-vacant house are distant relatives of Brandon and live out of state. The next owner will have no choice but to work with the Historical Preservation Commission.
The listing agent, Tony DiMeglio of Callaway Henderson, did not sound happy about the historic designation. “Right now, everybody is settling back,” DiMeglio said. “We don’t know what the restrictions are going to be. There is a lot less activity. Everybody is concerned.”
Yina Moore, who grew up on Green Street, studied architecture at Princeton, Class of 1980, and moved back to Princeton in 1996, now lives next door to Bob Rivers. Moore seems cautiously optimistic that the historic designation will slow the teardown trend.
“Realtors were self-condemning properties as teardowns,” Moore said. “The most important thing is that the people who are developing with interest to sell will come in with a different understanding and respect for the neighborhood. People who come to live here will be better informed and have an understanding of the history of the neighborhood. Neighborhoods evolve, but henceforth it will be done under a different purview.”
Historic designation may delay the hyper-commodification that resulted in teardowns replacing the modest front porch homes built and maintained by Great Migration African-Americans. But another pressure is coming to bear on the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood — increased density.
Consider one of the newest developments in the neighborhood: The former masonic temple at 30 Maclean Street. It was purchased for $835,000 in 2015 by Princeton Maclean LLC, which includes Mercer Oak Realty CEO Aubrey Haines, real estate lawyer Jared Witt, and architect Joshua Zinder.
The new owners did not propose to tear down the old building, but rather sought “adaptive re-use.” The prevailing zoning permitted two to three single-family homes on the site, but the owners instead sought to preserve and convert the building into 10 condominium rentals, including two affordable units, with a four-story outside staircase. In February the Zoning Board’s split-vote approval granted variances for significant unit density, parking space, and floor area ratio.
Other developers, including Bob Hillier, who has invested heavily in the neighborhood and whose office is on Witherspoon Street, have argued that increased density will help make housing more affordable.
But how much density is too much? At the February meeting, planning director Lee Solow noted the project’s density of 58 units per acre. By comparison, Avalon Bay’s new Witherspoon Street apartment complex is 38.9 units per acre and Hillier’s conversion of the former school to apartment building on Quarry Street is 23.7 units per acre.
Historic designation celebrates the neighborhood’s past, and may help preserve the present look and feel, but an unknown future awaits.
Have an opinion on the historic preservation issue? E-mail editor Sara Hastings: Hastings@princetoninfo.com