Complying with a Superior Court judge’s ruling that Princeton must provide more affordable housing remains an unfinished piece of business for Mayor Liz Lempert and the Council more than a year after the original decision was handed down.
The town has yet to submit a housing plan to meet the number set by Judge Mary C. Jacobson, who found in March 2018, that the municipality had a “new construction obligation” of 753 units covering a span from 1999 to 2025. Her decision came at the end of a trial pitting the town against the Fair Share Housing Center, a South Jersey-based group that advocates for affordable housing.
Officials have been unable to shed much light on details of their plan at this point, even as the town has said it is getting closer to having something the public can get a look at.
“We understand and are frustrated along with the community that this is not a more open process,” Lempert said in a phone interview Sept. 16. “And we are under instructions by a court and by our attorneys not to talk about some of the negotiations that are occurring both with Fair Share and with other property owners. I think everybody understands it’s not an ideal situation. We’d much rather have this be an open process.”
There is no date yet for when the plan will be submitted to the judge, who must approve it. Once that happens, the town will be given time to make the necessary zoning changes “to make it possible to implement that plan,” Lempert said.
“It feels like we’ve been at the final stage for a very, very long time,” she said. “It feels to me like we’re in the final stages. But it’s felt that way before, and it’s continued to drag on.”
Within that context, officials have been in discussions with residential developer AvalonBay, the contract purchaser of a 15-acre property located on Thanet Circle, about having the property be a part of the affordable housing plan. The company redeveloped the former Princeton Hospital on Witherspoon Street.
Lempert has said the sides have talked about how many affordable units would be included in what Avalon constructs at the Thanet site, today home to two office buildings. At the project at the old hospital site, AvalonBay constructed 280 units, of which 56 were set aside as affordable housing. Inclusionary developments that mix affordable and market-rate housing are common around the state, although critics contend they lead to much more housing than a town can accommodate.
“That’s part of our discussions with them,” Lempert said when asked how many residential units, in total, AvalonBay is considering building.
She said AvalonBay would need a zoning change because the Thanet property is not zoned for housing.
AvalonBay Senior Vice President Ronald S. Ladell declined to comment.
Lempert said she thinks the town is “close” to concluding discussions with the company.
“I feel like we’ve been having productive conversations,” she continued, “that I hope we can get to a spot where we meet both the needs of Avalon Bay and that of the municipality in meeting our affordable housing obligations and also of the community.”
Separately, another affordable housing project got the green light from the municipality earlier this year.
In June the Planning Board approved a 65-unit project on Herrontown Road, at the three-acre site once home to the pet shelter of SAVE, A Friend to Homeless Animals. The applicant was the contract purchaser 900 Herrontown Princeton LP, an affiliate of Montclair-based RPM Development Group.
Overall, 64 of the apartments will be for affordable housing, with the remaining one apartment for the building superintendent, municipal records showed. Buildings on the site will be three and four stories high.
The unanimous approval of the plan came after vigorous testimony from neighbors on Old Orchard and Mount Lucas roads opposing the project, citing the number of trees that would have to be cut down at the site and increased traffic demands on the surrounding streets.
“I think it’s going to be a nice project,” said Kevin Kavanaugh, vice president of development at RPM, in an interview in August. “With the services that are available to Princeton residents, I think we can really help a bunch of people out and get decent, safe affordable housing for folks.”
In a follow-interview on Sept. 19, he said a funding application was submitted September 12 to the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, a branch of state government. He said he hopes to get a decision from the agency by the end of the year.
“That is what’s going to drive the schedule,” he said. “If we don’t get funded, we’re not starting construction.”
He said “if everything goes well, we would start construction in 2020 and complete in 2021.”
He said most of the money that will be used to build the project comes from selling low income housing tax credits. “If we can get those, we can work the rest out,” he said.
Zoning for the property changed earlier this year, when the Princeton Council voted in April to create the affordable housing residential district to provide “a realistic opportunity” for building low and moderate income housing, municipal records showed.
In addition, the Council voted on July 8 to enter an agreement for RPM to make a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, to the municipality rather than pay a regular property tax bill where the taxes are split between the school district, the county and the town. The deal stipulated that RPM would provide 6.28 percent of its revenues to Princeton a year for 30 years.
In the July 8 resolution that they approved, Council members said they felt “entering into a PILOT agreement with RPM is necessary to assure implementation of the project and the construction of the affordable rental housing.” Lempert said such an arrangement is “typical” with projects that are 100 percent affordable housing.
She said there have been no discussions for the town to share some of the PILOT money with the school district, which might see enrollment grow from school-age children who live at the development.
“We understand the concerns about rising enrollment and about budgets,” Lempert said. “And at the end of the day, we’re one community.”
Superintendent Stephen Cochrane did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Planning Board news
The continuation of the hearing on the controversial Thompson Woods housing development off Herrontown Road (the Echo, September 2019) was originally scheduled for the September 19 Planning Board meeting but was postponed until the Thursday, October 10, meeting.
The September 19 meeting was devoted to a far less contentious plan submitted by the Great Road-based Tenacre Foundation to demolish its two main buildings and replace them with new buildings that are 1,600 and 4,600 square feet larger than what’s there now. The application included a new pedestrian area between the two buildings with limited vehicle traffic.
The application was unanimously approved with conditions.