A map from West Windsor’s draft master plan reexamination report showing projects planned for the downtown Princeton Junction area. (Click to enlarge.)

The West Windsor Planning Board is putting the finishing touches on a report that is expected to call for major revisions to the township’s master plan, according to township officials who are in the process of drafting the document.

Last year, the township began the process of evaluating the master plan—a planning document required by the state’s Municipal Land Use Law that is the linchpin for planning and zoning in the municipality.

In the past few months, the board has been working with a draft of the master plan reexamination report—an 80-plus page document written by planning firm Burgis Associates of Westwood.

The MLUL requires that every town reexamine its master plan at least once every 10 years. West Windsor’s last review, in 2008, only called for minor revisions.

Official say the report—which was reviewed by The News—is expected to recommend more significant changes. The planning board intends to finalize the report in mid-April and hold a final vote for adoption in May.

After that, the board will work over an estimated 12 to 18 months to write and implement master plan changes. The process would include zoning and other legislative changes by the mayor and township council.

“This [report] is like the entrance ramp to an interstate highway,” planning board chairman Gene O’Brien said about the report. “This is a preliminary view based on what our professional planners have seen.”

One of the main factors driving the report’s call for a master plan revision is a number of development proposals—the largest of which is the 653-acre Howard Hughes site, according to town land-use manager Sam Surtees.

Surtees, who played a key role in drafting the plan review, says that the March 8 decision by state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson that the town must build 1,500 units of affordable housing by 2025 is also driving revisions to the master plan.

According to the report, West Windsor is approaching full buildout—both in population and vacant land available. The 2002 master plan, which was the last major revision to the document, was written under the assumption that growth would be around 30,000 residents. A 2015 census estimated nearly 28,000 people currently live in West Windsor, with more residential developments underway.

Development proposed for the Howard Hughes site and the Sarnoff property, as well as Princeton University’s planned expansion in West Windsor on property it owns near Lake Carnegie, could significantly impact public schools, the local economy and traffic patterns.

An entire subsection in the report is dedicated to the Howard Hughes tract and its potential impact on the community if it is rezoned for residential and retail. The tract is currently zoned to for research, office and manufacturing uses. If mixed-use zoning is approved, it could “dramatically alter the character of West Windsor” due to the tract’s size and location, the report says.

West Windsor’s population growth.

The developer revealed its plan last May to build 1,976 residential units, of which 20 percent would be affordable. More than 1.3 million square feet of commercial space on the now-vacant parcel. About 150 residents attended the informal hearing.

Of those who spoke, most opposed the development on the grounds that population growth would strain the WW-P school district, which is already near capacity.

The estimated number of students that the development could bring varies based on who you ask. The developer predicts between 600 to 1,000 new students, while Superintendent David Aderhold has said that the district estimates the number will likely be much higher—between 740 to 1,600 students. Though the plan identifies a site for a new school, Aderhold has said the 32 acres set aside are too small for a middle or high school.

According to the master plan report, a 2017 study by the planning council for Boston’s metropolitan area looking at 234 school districts across the state found no correlation between school enrollment and housing growth over a six-year period. The report attributed this to aging Baby Boomers and younger generations having fewer kids.

According to economic data in the report, the median age of West Windsor residents increased from 37 years in 2000 to 41 years in 2015, and the share of the school-aged population declined slightly from 26.4 percent in 2000 to 23.9 percent in 2015. Average household size also decreased from 3.01 to 2.86 in that same time frame.

Yet public school enrollment in the district has increased overall in recent years and Maurice Hawk — the elementary school closest to the Howard Hughes site — is already at capacity. A district demographic study also estimated a yield of about one child per new home, and an average of .5 children per apartment or townhome in West Windsor.

Though likely to be less controversial than the Howard Hughes site, another significant proposal is Princeton University’s campus plan, detailing the university’s expansion into West Windsor through 2026. The university already owns the 220 acres along Washington Road across Lake Carnegie, and anticipates replacing the existing warehouses and solar field with academic buildings, administrative offices, athletic fields and graduate school housing, along with some retail amenities, parking lots and possibly a hotel.

“They seem to have a well thought-out and integrated plan for what they want to do,” O’Brien says. “The train would really have to go off the track on what they’re proposing for the town to push back.”

Overall in West Windsor, median real estate values have risen since 2000. However, the township’s percentage change in median home values from 2000 to 2015 trails Mercer County’s growth by 16 percent and New Jersey’s median change by 13 percent. The vacancy rate has also doubled from 2000 to 2015, from 2.3 percent to 4.2 percent — a jump that Mayor Hemant Marathe says the township is monitoring and that developers “should keep an eye on.”

The report includes census data from the American Community Survey, showing population growth in the township has slowed, with just a 2.6 percent growth from 2010 to 2015, compared to 24 percent between 2000 and 2010. The township experienced its largest population boom, a whopping 87 percent from 1980 to 1990, in the same decade when the most housing was built.

Though the census estimates a little over 10,000 dwelling units currently in West Windsor, the report call this a low-ball number; the township has certified more dwelling units from 2010 to 2015 than the census predicted.

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Looking forward, the township area to see the most change in the next decade will be Princeton Junction, Surtees predicts.

Adopted in 2009, the Princeton Junction redevelopment plan called for more than 200,000 square feet of retail and office space, along with 487 residential units, of which 36 percent (176 units) would be affordable housing.

The latest addition to the redevelopment plan is Freedom Village, a 100 percent affordable housing complex off Bear Brook Road spearheaded by the disability nonprofit Project Freedom, and approved unanimously by the planning board last year. It is municipally sponsored and about 20 percent of the neighborhood’s 72 units will be reserved for residents with disabilities.

Across the street on Alexander Road is the recently opened Artis Senior Center, an assisted living facility for up to 64 seniors with conditions related to impaired memory, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Council president Alison Miller, who is also the representative on the town’s Affordable Housing Committee, says she will continue to push for more affordable developments like these — for seniors and those with disabilities. About 8 percent of the township’s total housing stock is already age-restricted, or about 828 units. She also stresses the importance of building affordable housing projects that are well-integrated into the community.

“I don’t think an isolated, all-affordable project is socially healthy,” Miller says, noting that the 100 percent affordable Freedom Village development is still designed to be inclusionary “right down the block” with market-rate apartments, townhomes and a shared retail hub.
Also approved for development early last year was Princeton Ascend, a mixed-use project with retail space and 23 residences (18 market-rate and five affordable units), on the lot adjacent to Rite Aid on Princeton-Hightstown Road.

Meanwhile, the redevelopment of the Ellsworth Center, approved in 2014, has yet to begin. Plans show the expansion of the strip mall’s commercial space from 22,000 square feet to 55,000 square feet, along with 18 new one-bedroom apartments to supplement the center’s two existing apartments. Of the 20 residential units total, four would be designated as affordable housing.

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This draft reexamination report also gives updates to recommendations from the 2008 master plan review, including the Penns Neck bypass, bus rapid transit along Route 1, preservation of open space, more bike and pedestrian-friendly streets and creative improvements to enhance local identity.

The Penns Neck bypass, once a potential solution to lessen Route 1-related traffic on Washington Road near the Penns Neck neighborhood, is unlikely to happen due to the lack of state funds. The bypass would have rerouted Route 571 from the railroad bridge through the Sarnoff site and onto Route 1 at a bypass at Harrison Street.

The master plan review suggests the bypass could be designed and financed as part of Princeton University’s planned expansion into West Windsor. The issue was discussed at a meeting earlier this year when Princeton University representatives presented their 2026 proposal to the township.

Regardless of whether the bypass is built, the state’s department of transportation is planning to widen Route 1 from Alexander Road in West Windsor to Mapleton Road in Plainsboro, from three lanes to four in both directions. Construction will likely happen in 2020 or 2021, with completion slated for 2023.

However, the draft report describes this as a temporary and inadequate solution for traffic problems that a Penns Neck bypass could permanently alleviate, the report states.

A wider Route 1 would not help traffic flows on the east-west connections between Princeton and West Windsor, nor would it ease traffic through Penns Neck. The report also says that extra lanes would only temporarily solve Route 1 congestion “due to anticipated increases” in traffic levels.

Also stalled is a decade-old proposal for bus rapid transit running up and down Route 1, with Princeton Junction as the center hub. Under that plan, buses would run along a specially designated lane between Trenton and New Brunswick.

State and regional officials have been reviewing the transit plan for 12 years, as it would cost “hundreds of millions” in public dollars if implemented all at once, according to N.J. Transit. In 2006, a study by NJT estimated the cost between $600 to $680 million — or about $744 million to $843 million when adjusted for inflation.

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission estimates $150 million would be needed just to get the southern portion of the bus line up and running. In a long range plan finalized last December, the commission reported a $4.8 billion deficit for its New Jersey transit projects through 2045.

Though the fate of this regional project is uncertain, the township has awarded easements for planned bus stops and a generalized bus service will be included in a separate traffic element that’s part of the master plan.

“We’ve got to at least put it in there. If we don’t have it in, we’ll never have the option to implement it,” Surtees says.

Marathe expressed skepticism in an interview earlier this month on the mass transit system being built in his lifetime: “I may be pessimistic, but I don’t see that happening,” he said.

As for measurable local progress, West Windsor has dedicated 223 acres of open space since 2008, including 60 acres of natural preserve within Duck Pond Park. According to Surtees, the preservation of open space and farmland is the master plan element that has seen the most progress in the last decade.

What’s lagged behind was the master plan’s Fair Share Housing element (affordable housing), because the township was waiting for guidance from the state Council on Affordable Housing on the township’s affordable housing obligation. COAH was ultimately dissolved in 2015, and the town’s affordable housing number was left up to the courts.

Surtees says that Judge Jacobson’s decision to require 1,500 units is “going to drastically affect our master plan, from zoning to traffic. The housing element is also the only piece of the master plan that must be approved by both the planning board and township council.

Traffic calming on Clarksville Road was also suggested in the 2008 review, though improvements appear to be minimal.

A pedestrian bridge and sidewalks were proposed for the section of Clarksville Road that crosses the railroad tracks, in order to connect new developments like the Jewish Community Center, West Windsor Gardens and Duck Pond Park to the rest of the town.

This isn’t likely anytime soon — the report notes that sidewalks will be difficult to install given the location of guard rails and how narrow Clarksville Road is in that section. However, the Mercer County master plan describes the bridge as an “orphan bridge” that could be replaced with state or federal funds.

Nearby, a pedestrian crosswalk with flashing lights in front of Avalon Watch has been installed, and since 2008, the town has implemented bike-friendly or pedestrian-friendly features in one-third of its capital improvement projects.

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The new master plan, which will likely take between up to a year and a half to complete, will include two new elements: historical preservation and the local economy.

But the first element that must be completed this year is the Open Space element; without it, the township will lose its eligibility to receive grants from the state’s Green Acres program.

The new economic element would focus on attracting more retail and commercial development in hopes of shifting more of West Windsor’s tax-base from townspeople to business owners.

“We are trying to focus on what we can do to make it attractive for business to move into West Windsor,” Marathe says. The economic element would review the town’s zoning to “see if we can make it easier.”

Currently, 70 percent of West Windsor’s tax revenue comes from residents. “It would be very good if we could increase the amount of commercial ratables and reduce the ratio of 70:30 to even 65:35,” Surtees says.

Other recommendations for the new master plan include updating the Community Facilities element to focus on “creative placemaking” — animating community spaces with local character, particularly in “gateway” locations or unique, historical places like Grover’s Mill and intersections with high visibility that act as a “front door” to the community.

Building a unique sense of place in West Windsor could enhance the quality of life for residents and improve local business activity. Specifically, the report suggests that the township consult with the West Windsor Arts Council to achieve this element’s goals.

The type of recreation facilities the township plans to build, like more cricket fields, could also be informed by demographic trends reported in this year’s review.

Cricket is popular among a growing number of South Asian residents. Badminton, basketball, tennis and pickleball courts are also in high demand, according to Marathe.

“One of the things I’ve talked about in the past is the township needs an indoor recreational facility, the demographic trends will certainly determine a lot of that aspect,” Marathe says.

And as the town approaches full development, the new master plan could include a detailed aerial map with lot lines and zoning labels as part of a comprehensive “build-out analysis,” to figure out development potential for all vacant land not preserved as open space.

The build-out analysis is an unfulfilled recommendation from the 2008 review. The new plan could finally get that underway, due to the township’s ongoing growth, various redevelopment proposals and the town’s affordable housing obligations.

“[The master plan] is really a long-term planning document for the town. I would like to get input from township residents because it’s going to change what the town looks like 10 to 15 years from now,” Marathe says. “The report is just the first step and the minor step in the scheme of things. The real challenge will be modifying the master plan.”