Many houses in the area formally known as ‘Princeton North‘ were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Compared to homes that are built today, they might be considered quite small and basic, but when they were built they answered a need for housing for normal people (see photo above). Things in Princeton have changed radically since the 1960s.
The local economy and population have grown substantially, the University is far bigger, and people’s commute times have got much longer, as there are is a drastic shortage of housing in the Princeton activity center. These changes are signaled through ever-increasing property prices. Faced with these signals, a democratic market economy would build much more housing to respond to market demand. Spread-out neighborhoods would gradually become more like the denser ‘Tree Streets’ neighborhood close to town.
But that’s not what happens in Princeton. Consider this home on Ewing Street, a former neighbor to the homes shown at top:
This house has a Walkscore of 85 meaning ‘very walkable’. Many amenities, including all the stores of Princeton Shopping Center, Princeton’s middle school, high school, and downtown activity center are within walking range. If you care about making walkability something for everybody, you care about what happens to this site. And what is happening at this site? It sold last March for $333,000- a price consistent with a small single-family home. Here is what it looks like now:
The old house has been knocked down. But what is going to replace it? Remember- Princeton has specific standards for what can be built at any particular site. 333 Ewing Street is governed by the standards of the R8 zoning district. And here’s what that zoning gets us:
If you think this $1.2 million, 4-bedroom, 3.5-bathroom house is what we need more of in Princeton North, then you can stop reading now, because on current trends, this is exactly what we’re going to get at more and more sites throughout the former township.
If you think we might do better with something that average people can afford, which extends walkable housing to a wide spectrum of income levels, then which option should we choose?
- Historic Preservation/More Restrictive Zoning: This would prevent expensive new homes being built, but would also restrict existing residents from modifying their properties. Notably, a recent effort to impose historic designation on the ‘Morvern Tract’ in Princeton was derailed by residents who threatened to sue the town, fearing decreased property values. Further zoning restrictions would also prevent new housing supply being created to deal with the acute shortage of homes in Princeton.
- Liberalize Zoning: Align the interests of the town and developers by making it possible for developers to make greater profit by building more, small houses on sites in walkable areas instead of single mansions. In practice this means allowing lot subdivision, duplex housing and townhomes at sites like 333 Ewing Street. All of these are currently prohibited by the R8 zoning restrictions.
We previously looked at a lot subdivision on Jefferson Road, which maintained the character of the neighborhood but did not really increase affordability. On the other hand, current zoning, which places many restrictions on development, is definitely failing to preserve affordability and extend walkable housing choices. If we don’t change something, Princeton North is going to change from a neighborhood of relatively-affordable smaller houses to a neighborhood of large houses. If we keep zoning as it is, we are actively planning for a future in which average-income people will not be able to live in Princeton, and instead will be forced to drive to their jobs here from homes in other townships. Is that really what Princeton wants?
Is more restrictive zoning or more flexible zoning the right approach to promote affordability and walkability? What are the risks from each approach? Have your say in the comments section below.