Princeton planning and zoning has had unintended exclusionary outcomes, making it hard for local middle-class workers to live in town, and incentivizing car-dependency and traffic. In this series, we explore options for adding more walkable housing in Princeton to enable diversity and inclusivity, while maintaining and enhancing Princeton’s historic charm. (See also Part 1 and Part 2.)
Take a look at the photo above. What do you see? Low-rise single-family homes, gardens and mature trees. A typical Princeton neighborhood scene. But this photo also shows the location of a recent doubling in housing density. How did this happen? Here on Jefferson Road, a local developer made two new houses where previously there was only one by splitting a large lot. Here is the site in more detail (the house at the front is 343 Jefferson Road.):
The general approach of allowing large lots to be divided into smaller lots offers a way to increase and diversify housing in Princeton without building on new green space. A developer can make a reasonable profit from building more, smaller homes. These smaller homes are far more likely to enable affordability than the very large single-family homes which are appearing all the time in Princeton neighborhoods (fully in compliance with current zoning). Liberalizing minimum lot sizes might restrict new housing supply for the ultra-wealthy in Princeton, but this demographic already has ample choice, thanks to existing zoning which has favored construction of big single family homes on large lots, and even supported luxury walkable townhouses at The Residences At Palmer Square.
Princeton zoning and planning ordinances currently place significant restrictions on the way lots can be used. These restrictions include floor area ratio limits, setback requirements and parking minimums, all of which make it challenging or just plain unlawful to divide lots. This is too bad, because as shown in the photos above, dividing a lot does not necessarily change the character of a neighborhood. Lot subdivision also offers benefits to the municipality, because adding homes on existing lots does not require new investment in terms of roads, lighting, brush pick-up etc, and therefore adds to the tax base without straining services. Increased flexibility to allow for lot subdivision in the zoning code would lead to an incremental increase in housing supply, which would potentially be less dramatic than single developments like that at the old hospital site.
Smaller lots are very much a part of Princeton’s history, as seen in the historic ‘Tree Streets’ neighborhood north of Nassau Street. As such, easing zoning restrictions that prevent lot subdivision would bring advantages in terms of affordability, potential walkability and fiscal resiliency, without compromising Princeton’s historic character.
What do you think? Can you think of other examples in Princeton where a lot was subdivided to allow for more housing units? How successful do you think ti was? What effect do you think lot subdivision would have on affordability and increasing the supply of walkable housing? And do you think the value of your home would go up or down if lot restrictions were eased? Have your say in the comments section below.
In theory, more houses on smaller lots should add to housing diversity both in terms of housing size and type and selling price. This property, however, converted a larger lot with one ranch house that sold in 2008 for $685,000 (source: Zillow) into two larger houses on smaller lots each selling for approximately $1,300,000. The effect on affordability is likely to be increased values for all the surrounding homes when these comparable sales are factored in, accompanied by higher taxes for everyone in the neighborhood. Could be a good thing for those neighbors who plan to sell; maybe not so good for those who want to remain. If Princeton wants to preserve income diversity in its neighborhoods, this example isn’t the way to achieve it.
Hi Valerie- the point is well taken. The trend for new-builds on existing lots in Princeton is alarming from an affordability perspective. Subdividing lots might be a more effective tactic to promote affordability instead of historic preservation, but it raises questions of where, how much, and how would it affect the neighborhood? These Jefferson Rd houses are an interesting case study in that the subdivision is relatively uncontroversial, but it is a failure from an affordability standpoint (unless you compare to a hypothetical, single, $2 million new-build that could have been built on the same site, and even then it’s moot).
If we run with the idea that subdivision could be acceptable, would it be OK to build 5x$550K homes on this 1 acre lot instead of 2x$1.3 million homes? The profit to the developer could be greater than the two houses that did get built, and obviously there would be more affordability. Could it be done in a context-sensitive way? What if there was one larger $1 million home facing the street and 4x$500K cottages at the back? Would we even want to do that so far north of town on Jefferson? And if not here, are there other sites where 5 units per acre could be acceptable? If we could answer these questions, maybe we could use zoning and developers’ profit motive to do the hard work of providing more affordable homes, instead of the current situation where affordability is slipping away and lots of people are angry about the new-builds in their neighborhoods.
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