This article was originally published in the July 2018 Princeton Echo.
If you are familiar with Princeton real estate, you don’t always need to describe a house to give people an idea of what it looks like. You can call a property a Steadman house, for example, and it will conjure up the image of a classically designed 19th century home built by the famous Charles Steadman. Or a Bauhan house, after Rolf Bauhan, the prolific architect from the early 20th century. More recently you might refer to a Graves or Hillier design.
For the past two decades or so another name has had a particular look associated with it, and it’s often accompanied by a grimace. The name is Barsky, and for some people Barsky is synonymous with tear downs of small homes and the building of McMansions that seem out of proportion in the neighborhood.
One squabble between Barsky and some Princeton neighbors ended up being reported in the New York Times in 2005. The most recent encounter is happening now on Hawthorne Avenue, just off of Harrison Street. As in many cases, after the builder purchased the lot with the 1950s-era Cape Cod on it, tore it down, and then presented plans for a much larger house, the first reaction of the neighbors was, in effect, how could they get away with it? In fact Barksy isn’t getting away with anything. Town zoning regulations permit much larger houses than the typical family dreamed of needing. And, in the Hawthorne Avenue case, the homeowner’s complaint ended up as much with the town as it did with the builder.
Like most images, the Barsky image doesn’t always match the reality. The Witherspoon Street-based company, called RB Homes after its founder, Roman Barsky, is just finishing up one of its most visible projects, which is far from a typical Barsky project. The building at 205 Nassau Street, directly across from St. Paul’s Church, was a tear-down, to be sure, even though elements of it dated back to the 1700s. But the Historic Review Board backed the decision, given that the replacement building would faithfully recreate the facade of the old building and rest on the same footprint, and — perhaps most importantly — accommodate a desirable mixed use of retail on the ground floor and rental apartments above.
Work on the built-to-suit retail space is expected to be complete in August, while the three upstairs apartment are now available for rent. All three units have two bedrooms and two bathrooms, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, in-unit washer and dryer, hardwood floors, and a balcony.
Monthly rents for the 1,000-square-foot spaces are around $3,500, not including additional fees for extra storage space and off-street parking. The monthly rent is on par with other recently constructed Princeton apartment units, including AvalonBay, with two bedrooms listed from $3,300 to $4,000 monthly, and Carnevale Plaza, with two bedrooms starting at just under $3,000 per month.
No, RB Homes is not trying to jam its own particular architectural vision down the throats of residents. Roman Barsky and his son, Daniel, insist that their home designs, often viewed by neighbors as too large or too ornate, are a reflection of what newcomers to Princeton want in a house. And their best evidence is the market: RB Homes is a spec (speculative) builder. Within the last year alone RB Homes has either refurbished or demolished and newly erected 25 homes, 15 of which lie within Princeton.
“Because we build on spec,” says Roman, “we usually don’t have a customer when we are laying out the plans. This means we really have to know what people in our area are buying. And Daniel can tell you, what people want in their home today has changed drastically.”
“They want downtown living,” explains Daniel Barsky. “People seem to select and settle into a home where they can walk to stores, schools, and the restaurants they frequent. They want streets they can safely bike on, and transportation they can bike to. And above all they want zero-maintenance both on the house and the yard.”
The downtown house, both Barskys insist, must reflect this shift in lifestyle. “People want new and easy. Maintenance is an activity our buyers are desperately looking to avoid,” says Daniel. “They want a finished basement, not a workshop in the basement.” Roman, who handles RB Homes’ designs, works toward what he calls a transitional layout — somewhere in between colonial and modern. Formal dining rooms are small, and kitchens are huge. Americans dine out on average five meals per week, and the remaining in-home meals are rapidly compiled, placed on the breakfast bar, and enjoyed from a plush stool. Princetonians spend more hours in their houses but seem to always be racing on their way out.
Colonial touches remain on the outside styling, but the snug, heat-holding rooms of fireplace days have yielded to the more open, flowing feel. The in-town, RB-built homes are typically 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, offering wide spaces, four or five bedrooms, and, as an absolute deal-maker, a separate bathroom for every family member. Placing these hefty homes on available quarter-acre lots allows the owner enough room to plant a small patch of something organic and sip summer drinks alfresco, without necessitating a garage full of lawn tools. These homes sell within the range of $1.2 to $1.6 million.
Daniel and Roman Barsky hold forth on these elements of the downtown lifestyle as we chat in the RB Homes’ offices at 152 Witherspoon Street. The conference room in which we sit is embraced in dark wood paneling, with finely sculpted trim at the edges. It bespeaks a warm elegance. Then, with a wave of his hand, Roman says, “When it comes to the interior, this may be what we enjoy, but today’s homebuyers are all going for white — everything light and bright in color. All our floors are hard wood, but the plain white Shaker-style cabinets are much more desired now than the heavier dark woods in fashion a while ago.”
The market RB Homes seeks to target meshes uniquely well with the Princeton environment. The majority of the firm’s buyers comprise New York urban transplants and Princeton University’s academe. The lure of high tech and research jobs draws a great number of mobile families from the Big Apple and elsewhere. “A lot of our clients are big pharma executives or scientists,” says Daniel. “They are young, mid-30s, looking to start or raise their families, and are very career-oriented. They love the schools and the convenience of downtown life afforded here.”
Princeton University faculty find the same advantages, plus often a little help from their employer. To encourage instructors and professors to settle close at hand, the university offers faculty a series of low interest loans for homes within the area. The many academic buyers, along with the university atmosphere of the town, have bred a certain electronic minimalism into the Princeton home designs. “When we build up in Short Hills and other affluent towns, everyone wants the big screen TVs, cameras in every room, monitors that tell your phone what’s in your refrigerator — all the trendy electronics,” laughs Roman. “But in Princeton, not so much. They want things more traditional.” After 30 years, you get a feel for the town you live in.
In 1978, at the age of 18, Roman Barsky left Ukraine and immigrated to the United States, where he began making his way as a construction laborer. “I really didn’t know anything,” he recalls, “so they gave me a shovel and said ‘get busy.’ But my father, who had been a factory manager, had taught me how to work with people.”
Within two years Roman Barsky became an insulation contractor for residential and commercial structures, and began making friends throughout the construction trade. In 1985 Barsky took the entrepreneurial plunge and built his first house: a 2,000-square-foot bi-level in Plainfield, which he sold for $199,000. That same year he moved to Princeton and began to see the potential. The several academic centers and burgeoning research industry caused the town to have a high real estate turnover with residential space always at a premium close to downtown.
Additionally, Princeton clung to its own history. Families grew up, stayed, and spent their lives in their homes. For many, this meant that they would continue in their homes beyond their ability to properly maintain them. Though the houses might be neglected and lose value, the properties certainly did not. For other residents, this historic pride sparked a desire to renovate and invest in whatever was necessary to sustain historic structures. Such elder, patriarchal buildings gave charm and meaning to those who loved this town. It was an ideal spot for a builder who could restore the old and thoughtfully reinvigorate with the new. And who would carefully make the right choice.
Two years after Roman settled in Princeton, his son Daniel was born. As Daniel tells it, “I really grew up in this business. When I was just a kid, they’d take me to the site and give me a shovel and I’d go moving stuff around with the shovel.” In 2009 the younger Barsky graduated from Bryant University in Rhode Island with a degree in finance. Despite lucrative offers in the banking sector, he chose to return to RB Homes. Together the father and son team have flourished.
How can the Barskys get away with building these huge houses? In fact they aren’t getting away with anything. Zoning regulations permit it.
Daniel, who has taken over most of the client relation duties, has gained a sharp perspective on what will and what just cannot sell. “You might be able to refurbish a three-bedroom house with one bathroom,” he says, “but it simply isn’t saleable. o one today will buy it.” The Barskys are ever on the hunt for new properties to purchase and either renovate or demolish and build anew. Though Princeton holds fewer opportunities than when Roman first came to town, they still find ample spec investments within a few minutes of their Witherspoon Street offices.
At the same time, RB Homes has expanded throughout the state, following the same construction process in Morristown, Short Hills, and New Vernon. Most recently, the Barskys have been rebuilding in Point Pleasant, where Hurricane Sandy left behind a crying need for development of high value properties.
To construct a house at all holds innumerable challenges. To buy the land and then build the house with no customer or contract in sight is often downright scary. RB Homes runs a lean office. Roman and Daniel, along with Monica Wilimczyk and Danielle Drozdek handling the office work, and job supervisor Tony Atchely make up the entire team. “We have to keep it tight,” says Daniel. “The soft costs (all expenses not directly job related) keep rolling on whether you’ve got customers or not. They can kill you.”
With each new construction project, the lean team organization must rapidly bring on an army of contractors. “Most people have no idea what goes into building a quality home,” says Roman Barsky. “It’s not unusual for us to hire a hundred separate contractors, involving three or four hundred workers to complete a single house.” He ticks off a few examples on his fingers: one mason for stone, a mason for brick, one carpenter to install the outside trim, another person to paint it, another to paint the house exterior, another for the interior crown molding, and on and on. Barsky’s best advice on handling this legion of contractors? “Watch each one like a hawk and know how to do their job as well as they do.”
If a customer comes in and purchases the home in the middle of construction, the spec builder may heave a massive sigh of relief, hoping at last to see some return on his gambled investment. However, this is when the real fun begins. The new homeowner just loves your plans, fairly much as you have them. “But, you know, Mr. Barsky, I think it would be nice if we had a fieldstone front instead of brick, and do you see a convenient way to make that back bedroom into a mother-in-law suite?”
And as a final straw, you may discover that the planning board has changed the construction code. The plans you submitted when you speculatively bought the property no longer meet with the board’s current approval. This particular challenge is where Roman Barsky’s years of experience and long relationships shine. He holds a great respect for Princeton’s planners and, he believes, it is reciprocated.
From that first bi-level in Plainfield, Roman Barsky has built and sold more than 100 homes. Now, with the aid of son Daniel, RB Homes has moved into residential rentals, including the units at 205 Nassau Street, and commercial buildings. The Barskys have also taken on homes in the 5,000 to 12,000 square-feet range, like the imposing manor house at 18 Katies Pond Road (now listed at $6 million).
If there lies any secret to their continued success it is the Barskys’ insistence on quality that the buyer seldom sees. The use of higher priced composites instead of commercial wood affords three times the durability. Employing Schluter waterproofing systems and underground drainage invisibly add to the homes’ longevity.
All of us enjoy the homes and neighborhoods we grew up with. These buildings hold a sacred spot in our memories. The demolition of any of them makes us wince. More than a few of us can find kinship with Arthur Miller’s famed “Death of a Salesman” line, “Sometimes I think there is more of Willy in that back stoop than in all the sales he ever made.”
But we are also adjusting to an additional American dream. Those wanting the downtown lifestyle need homes that can fulfill their dreams. It is good to know that our towns, as we always have, can accommodate them.
RB Homes, 152 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-7111.
Why Barskys’ world is a nightmare for others
On street after street in Princeton, neighbors have stood by helplessly as older homes have been razed and replaced by outsized, overwrought McMansions. In most cases the new homes do not even require a zoning variance. To counter these mega-structures, the town has launched a neighborhood character initiative, but supporting ordinances have yet to be introduced.
Galina Chernaya of 258 Hawthorne Avenue moved with her husband and children to the tree street neighborhood 12 years ago. When the house next door at 260 Hawthorne was sold to RB Homes, Chernaya quickly discovered she couldn’t stop its construction. But she soon realized there was another threat to her property — the excavation for the new home tore into the roots of five towering, century-old maple trees on the edge of her property and the neighbor’s. The alarms she has sounded may be too late to save her trees, but they stand out as one last measure for homeowners to put some limits on the big new house coming into the neighborhood.
Chernaya’s case has come to the attention of the Shade Tree Commission, which was expected to discuss the matter at its regular monthly meeting June 26, after this issue of the Echo went to press. In a memorandum to the committee, member Victoria Airgood noted that the construction site at 260 Hawthorne “needs both immediate attention and longer-term consideration.”
Tree protection, it turns out, is considered part of the demolition permitting process. But, according to Chernaya, the ordinance was not followed to the letter of the law. The engineering department, she says, failed to inspect the builder’s tree protection plan. In addition that plan was not reviewed by the Shade Tree Commission. In fact, Chernaya says, there was no effective plan in place. As Airgood wrote in her memo to the Shade Tree Commission, “I ask that the commission consider whether additional means of enforcing tree protection measures are needed in light of the pace of residential redevelopment in Princeton.”
Now Chernaya has commissioned attorney Roger Martindell to argue her case, calling for construction activity to halt while steps are taken to protect the remaining trees and drawing the town’s attention to a professional on-site evaluation by Princeton Tree Care: “The neighboring construction project has caused damage to the roots of the five trees that straddle your shared property line. . . Care was not taken in the preservation of these trees during the excavation process. It appears an excavator was used to move the soil, resulting in damage to the trees roots. Proper root pruning techniques should have been implemented to minimize root trauma.
“The trees require immediate care [including] soil aeration around the trees’ remaining critical root zone; root pruning to repair damage to roots; installation of loamy soil; and liquid root feeder.” The estimated cost: $5,500.
Chernaya says she and her husband came from Russia to the U.S. to work in the pharmaceutical industry. Now, as she deals with bureaucratic entities, government forms, and regulations not followed, she’s feeling as if she’s back in the U.S.S.R. The big difference, she says, pointing toward her sign of protest that has attracted the attention of at least one journalist, is freedom of speech.