In January, Princeton’s Zoning Board of Adjustment was scheduled to rule on whether a proposal to convert the old Masonic Hall at John and MacLean St into apartments could go ahead. The hearing was postponed, and is now set to be heard on Wednesday, February 17. But signs have been stapled to lamp-posts and utility poles around the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, apparently protesting the development, because it runs afoul of existing zoning. Warning of “developers looking to convert properties to higher density usage and cash in”, the signs list a number of zoning regulations that would require variances if the project is to go ahead. But the developer in this case is a local person who has consulted neighbors, and a strict adherence to the zoning code is unlikely to be in the town’s best interests anyway.
The signs argue that it is unreasonable to grant variances to the zoning. In recent years, the Zoning Board of Adjustment has applied zoning requirements stringently, such as when its members struck down a walkable multi-family redevelopment at the 255 Nassau Street site (a revised plan, which brought more units but required fewer variances was subsequently approved). The zoning for the 255 Nassau Street site was however formulated as a result of a great deal of public discussion. The same cannot be said about the 30 MacLean Street site. As with most of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, the zoning was imposed decades ago, and never fitted to the pre-existing neighborhood. Most of the neighborhood is non-compliant with zoning, and yet it is one of the best neighborhoods in town. This is not a great advertisement for a strict adherence to zoning.
If zoning was strictly applied, just two units could be created at the old Masonic Hall site, instead of the ten that are proposed. This is possible, but to cover the costs of redevelopment, the two units would most likely end up being super-high-end luxury units. We would be repeating the same mistakes as were made with ‘The Residences At Palmer Square’, where relatively large, fancy townhouses were built, which have struggled to find buyers, in large part because of the widespread availability of other high-end housing in Princeton. More modest units should have been built at that site, and more modest units should be created at 30 MacLean too. More modest units would allow people at more ordinary income brackets to take advantage of the new homes, and allow a greater number of people to choose to live in an area that is walkable and accessible to transit.
Reducing the number of units at 30 MacLean would not be a victory unless ‘victory’ is defined as keeping as many people out of Princeton as possible. It would reduce people’s ability to choose to live car-free or car-lite, and it would endanger the two affordable units what would be created as part of the town’s 20% set-aside rule. Zoning is important, but a rigid adherence to zoning is not suitable for unique properties such as this, which also afford special opportunities. That is, after all, why we have a Zoning Board of Adjustment, and hopefully the Board will look favorably on this application. As for whoever posted these signs, their solemn dedication to existing zoning regs is rendered ridiculous by the fact that posting signs in the public right of way is, itself…a violation of zoning!
The zoning board meeting starts at 7.30 p.m. at 400 Witherspoon Street on Feb 17.