This article was originally published in the April 2018 Princeton Echo.
If there’s one thing that Princeton homeowners complain about (after taxes, of course) it’s zoning. When you want to make a small improvement to your house, it often requires some sort of variance from the zoning board. But when someone down the street wants to knock down an old house and replace it with a huge “MacMansion” or a high tech, chrome and glass “urban insertion,” then — it often seems — zoning can do nothing about it.
The Princeton Neighborhood Zoning Initiative, formed several years ago in response to residents’ concerns about the impact of development on the character of their neighborhoods, will host a workshop for architects, builders, and attorneys on Wednesday, April 11, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. and a public meeting the same day from 7 to 9 p.m. (The meeting was postponed from March 21 because of a snowstorm.) Representatives from the nationally known planning and architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK) are expected to present recommendations for potential zoning changes related to some of the issues identified in the Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative Progress Report dated June, 2017.
The zoning discussion is timely because the municipality has not yet reconciled the two zoning approaches that were followed by the former borough and township prior to consolidation. For now a Princeton homeowner seeking a variance has to file one application if the house is in the old borough, or a different one if it is in the old township.
Topics of discussion at the April 11 meetings range from granny flats to wonky “floor area ratios” (a building’s square footage divided by plot size). Yet most stem from a single concern: the steady erosion of middle-income real estate. To preserve Princeton’s mid-range homes, the proposed zoning changes will likely raise barriers for developers who raze small homes and plant mansions.
The report last June highlighted many discrepancies between Princeton’s zoning laws and its future development goals, outlining town codes in need of repair. The lack of mid-range housing and loss of town character — including the demolition of smaller, aging homes and their replacement by pricey five-bedroom mansions — were among the chief concerns.
The report noted this “tear down” trend as a national phenomenon, targeting old neighborhoods in desirable ZIP codes where the land is worth more than the home. In Princeton developers demolished and sold 83 homes between 2013 to 2016, compared to 54 by private homeowners.
The median price of a new house in Princeton floats between $1.3 and $1.5 million. For an older home, the price range is closer to $550,000 to $630,000. For Princeton’s middle-class residents and first-time homebuyers, these smaller properties offer walkable, downtown living. Yet the report found these small homes are disappearing from the housing stock.
According to the 2017 report, “homebuyers with means are attracted to the proximity and conveniences of the city and the character of the built-out suburbs, but they also typically want more space in their homes. Renovating an older, smaller home can be more expensive than demolishing the house and building a new one in its place. The negative impacts of this trend result from zoning codes not being adequately up-to-date and calibrated to moderate such changes.”
In preparing the 2017 report the town’s consultants, NV5 (formerly the RBA Group) surveyed residential neighborhoods “to get a sense of their characteristics and observe the outcomes of new homes.
Some new houses appear to:
“be uncharacteristically large for the block;
“eliminate the preexisting tree canopy on the lot;
“be surrounded by more paved surfaces than necessary; and
“diminish the character of the street with dominant garage and auto entry.”
Residences with dominant garages were also referred to as “snout houses,” with garages facing the street and protruding out to dominate the appearance of the front facade.
According to the June report, a stricter code might limit the size of new homes by changing the maximum height from 35 feet to 30. It could also cap the number of floors at two and a half, instead of three. The report even suggests more stringent tree protections: “mature trees with broad canopies” are distinct to some Princeton neighborhoods and often cleared in demolitions.
The report was also critical of the way the existing zoning codes measure building height. The define height as the distance above the “average level of finished grade.” That phrase, the report said, “can lead to houses being built on elevated mounds that are several feet higher than its surroundings. This is not only a character issue but also one that can lead to drainage problems on neighboring properties.” The report recommends changing the wording to consider average pre-construction grade.
A more complicated zoning repair might limit the maximum floor area ratio, weakening demand from developers looking to demolish older homes and build bigger. Though the change would likely depress the market value of “less well-maintained” homes, it could also encourage owners to rent these properties instead, diversifying Princeton’s housing stock.
The growing popularity of renting out granny flats has also caught Princeton’s attention. Granny flats, also known as “accessory dwelling units,” are living quarters located on the same family-lot that are separate from the main residence. They must have their own living space, kitchen, and bathroom to be considered an accessory dwelling unit. Heralded as a way to diversify housing stock and generate income for retirees and empty nesters, there are no laws in Princeton that regulate their rental. The June report specifies a need to gauge public opinion before crafting this specific zoning code.
The last zoning repairs were passed back in 2016, amending the codes for porches, front-yard setbacks, and cathedral ceilings. Notably, two zoning changes were put on hold. The town decided it needed more data on its parking woes before writing new laws for garages and shared driveways.
All these zoning changes may be far off in the future. As last year’s neighborhood zoning report said with respect to the teardown problem, there is no “quick-fix.”