Princeton Council is considering amending the zoning along Witherspoon Street, one of Princeton’s major thoroughfares, which runs from Nassau Hall in the south to Valley Road in the north. Almost every form of activity in Princeton happens on Witherspoon Street, and right now, it has almost every form of zoning as well. It might make sense to harmonize the zoning, now that the Borough/Township line no longer cuts Witherspoon Street in two. But what would be the purpose of change? With so much history around it, there is a case for keeping things the way they are. But reform could also protect and enhance several features of Witherspoon Street.
The question is whether zoning changes can be of benefit to the town. Here are some principles that might serve to protect and enhance the Witherspoon Street corridor:
1. Legalize and incentivize market-rate affordable housing
A fire earlier this year saw 41 residents emerge from just six Witherspoon Street apartments. Princeton’s immaculate yards are maintained by people who are often living six-to-a-room in overcrowded houses and apartments around Witherspoon Street. Curiously, the conversation about zoning on Witherspoon Street doesn’t seem to have included much representation from the large local Hispanic community, who are potentially most likely to be affected. They aren’t the only people who want for decent housing. Many of the sons and daughters of people who grew up in the area have to move away for lack of housing. There are 1,900 people on waiting lists for affordable housing in Princeton. Modernizing zoning gives us a chance to help address this issue.
New housing on Witherspoon Street would help the affordability problem if the housing was at a particular price point. Smaller units, or ‘micro-apartments‘ as they are sometimes known, would open up new housing opportunities. They are unlikely to be luxury units, because they would be small. It would be nice if we could have lots of big, cheap homes, but the land values in Princeton make that impossible. Princeton should liberalize zoning to allow micro-apartments, or even consider new zoning that would require a certain maximum unit size. This would produce more housing at the low end of the market, and limit the trend toward luxury housing. Downzoning, on the other hand, should be resisted, because it creates another obstacle to providing much-needed housing.
2. Begin to liberate the neighborhood from cars
Many of the residential areas around Witherspoon Street were designed to be walkable. Traditionally, people worked, shopped and went to church in walking range of their homes. Despite this, there have been repeated attempts to use zoning to impose a suburban model of automobile-dependence on these close-in neighborhoods. Zoning rules don’t require apartments to have a minimum of 1.5 bathrooms, but they do require a minimum of 1.5 parking spots. This incentivizes people to keep and use personal automobiles, which is the opposite of what we need. It’s time to consider an alternative.
Future development should only be approved if it comes with a ‘transportation management plan’ outlining how residents would get around. Developers should be required to emphasize car-sharing, bike use and transit instead of suburban-style parking minimums. No housing should be built with more than one parking space per unit. We already have too many cars in downtown Princeton. Even stricter limits should be considered. And new housing should not be eligible for resident parking permits on adjoining streets. These alterations to zoning are essential if we are to preserve livability as redevelopment occurs, and reduce our dependence on the most-polluting forms of transport.
3. Protect the historic, and aim for beauty in new developments.
Witherspoon Street has several important historic sites which should be preserved or enhanced. In addition to the historic churches, the Paul Robeson House at Witherspoon and Green Street deserves the support of the whole community as a local treasure. The view of Nassau Hall, which greets walkers headed toward town on Witherspoon Street is, likewise, under-appreciated. Framed by unsightly overhead electrical wires and broken-down sidewalks, visitors must wonder why we can’t do better. Protecting the old, and bringing a sense of beauty and order to Witherspoon Street should be goals of redevelopment. That also means calming traffic and making it truly safe for pedestrians and cyclists to have equal, safe access to the road. The existing sharrows provide no protection for cyclists, leading many to ride on sidewalks, endangering pedestrians.
There will be new dollars available to achieve all these objectives as redevelopment occurs if we do it right. To ensure the character of the street is maintained while providing the maximum flexibility for redevelopment, the town should investigate and adopt elements of a form-based code. A form-based code is not necessarily the magic solution to Princeton’s regular, adversarial redevelopment issues, but by placing the emphasis on the overall look of proposed buildings, instead of legalistic planning jargon, it stands more chance of producing buildings that add to a sense of place. Other historic towns in New Jersey have already moved to a form-based alternative to traditional zoning, and Princeton should give this possibility greater consideration.
What opportunities do you see in changing the zoning along Witherspoon Street in Princeton? What is your vision for its future? Let us know in the comments section below.