Nearly three years ago, when a group of Princeton investors presented a plan for converting the old Masonic Temple building on Maclean Street into a multi-unit apartment building, concerns were raised at the Zoning Board about the effect the proposed residences would have on the density of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood of which it is a part.
The town planner, Lee Solow, commented at one of the Zoning Board hearings considering the proposal that the 10 units at the site would be the equivalent of 58 dwelling units per acre. Solow described the application as a “tough call” for the board. The increase in density, he was quoted as saying, “is a lot. It sounds like a lot.”
But, despite two opposing votes, by Steve Cohen and Harlan Tenenbaum, the project was approved. This fall the investors unveiled a rendering of how the completed building will look, and finalized plans for the 10-unit project, which will include two affordable units and is expected to be ready for occupancy in about a year.
If a different approach had been followed at 30 Maclean Street, the building might have been torn down and replaced by two or three single family dwellings. The building was originally an Elks lodge, built there in 1924 to replace a previous structure that had burned down. The Masons purchased the building in the 1940s, called it Aaron Lodge No. 9, and owned it until the current partnership bought it in 2015. The residential conversion plan, according to a press statement, “will restore the exterior of the building in order to maintain and preserve its original character, while adding a new stair tower structure to one side. No change will be made to its height or scale, in keeping with the wishes of Princeton residents who largely prefer that the essential character of the neighborhood, recently designated a historic district, not be altered.” The sustainable design, by architect Joshua Zinder’s firm, JZA+D, calls for “energy-efficient mechanical systems and fixtures, in addition to bike parking, new trees and plantings, and an open patio area with seating.”
Zinder, one of the investors in the building along with real estate attorney Jared Witt and Trenton real estate developer Roland Pott, said “projects that celebrate historic structures and local architectural character while adapting underutilized buildings to new uses represent win-win scenarios for developers and residents. The Masonic Lodge at 30 Maclean Street is a beloved local icon. We take pride in giving it a second life.”
So how much density becomes too much? “A lot” is one way to look at 58 units per acre. Another way is to compare it to other areas. Some neighborhoods in Manhattan, for example, are zoned to allow up to 425 units per acre. The Esplanade housing development on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge has a density of 146 units per acre.
Closer to home, as part of the affordable housing response in Princeton, a three-acre site on Franklin Avenue may be developed with 80 units (with more than half affordable), with a resulting density of just under 27 units per acre. On lower Alexander Street, a 19-acre tract south of Princeton train station is expected to be zoned for 300 units, or 16 units per acre. At the Princeton Shopping Center 150 units (including 30 affordable units) are planned. The density is listed at 5.4 units per acre on the 28-acre site, but you can be sure that the 150 units will be clustered in one small area and not spread out across the parking lots or central courtyard of the center.
As the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy states in a web-based toolkit devoted to visualizing density: “If there’s one thing Americans hate more than sprawl, it’s density. This is evident in the public planning process as regulations are written and projects are reviewed. Across the country, efforts to increase density have met with stiff resistance. One reason people reject density is that they don’t know much about it — what it looks like, how to build it, or whether it’s something they can call home.”
In the case of the adaptive reuse of the Masonic Temple, the question of what it would look like has already been answered: It will pretty much look like the building that has been on the site for nearly a century.
Along with density, the zoning hearing for the Maclean Street building considered parking issues. The zoning ordinance requires 1.5 parking spaces per unit, or 15 for the entire project. The project was approved with 11 spaces, including a handicapped space. As Zinder said at the time of the application, “We are hoping that not all residents will have cars.”
At a neighborhood meeting about the project, held prior to the zoning review, one neighbor who had moved to Princeton from New York speculated that there would be people happy to rent so close to the center of town, where a car would not be needed. The success of the Masonic Lodge residences may be more ammunition for those who favor a new zoning code not predicated on parking.
ML7 Construction & Design of Princeton will serve as general contractor. A firm associated with Jared Witt, J3 Management of Kingston, will be rental manager. Berkshire Bank is providing the financing.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 Princeton Echo.