Princeton’s Zoning Board of Adjustment has approved required variances for a planned conversion of the old Masonic Hall on MacLean Street. The building will now be converted to ten apartments, including a mix of studios and one- and two-bed units. The vote came after over four hours of discussion and much hesitation from the Board. Several members were adamant that the adaptive reuse would bring too much density and cause problems with parking.
During public comment, the majority of speakers were in favor. The applicant team, which included architect Josh Zinder, reached out to members of the local community after acquiring the site, to see what kind of redevelopment they might want. Based on those meetings, Zinder and his team proposed the risky ten-unit development, which required a significant number of zoning variances, and a super-majority of votes from the Board. The board heard that ten smaller units could be made available at a rate that would be substantially less than what would be possible with just two or three units. Two non-market affordable units would also be included under the town’s IZ scheme. The plan also has bike parking, is close to transit and town, and will aim for LEED Gold certification. Neighbors liked that the building would be preserved, and units might be less expensive.
The positive comments and nice features were not sufficient to persuade two members of the Board however. Steven Cohen and Harlan Tenenbaum strongly stated their opposition, arguing that the density was too high, and that fewer units should be allowed. At one point, Tenenbaum also complained that the price of the units would be too high for local people. Studios will rent from $1,500, and the most expensive 2-bedroom apartments will go for around $2,500. Zinder argued that the rent was much lower per square foot than potential local competitors, such as the apartments at The Waxwood, or the new AvalonBay development. Cohen and Tenenbaum repeatedly questioned their fellow Board members who seemed more favorably inclined to the apartments plan, demanding that they provide further justification for their support.
The Zoning Board attorney further questioned the Board members, saying that they could not base their justification for approving the variances on economic grounds. This seemed like a problem, because a major reason for having 10 apartments appeared to be to satisfy local residents’ desire for smaller, more reasonably-priced units – an economic reason. After an hour of debate among the Board members, however, a super-majority seemed satisfied that the density was acceptable in this specific instance, in part because it is an adaptive re-use of an existing structure. The variances will no longer be applicable if it proves impossible to reuse the existing structure, and the Board was clear that similar variances would not be issued for a new-build construction.
The 30 MacLean redevelopment re-starts the trickle of new multi-family approvals in Princeton. In 2015, no significant multi-family developments were approved. In 2014, the Zoning Board approved 23 units in a mixed-use development at 255 Nassau Street. In 2013, the Planning Board approved the controversial 280-unit AvalonBay development, part of which is expected to open later this year. Given that the MacLean Street application only just about scraped through, despite having many members of the public in favor, and having many environmentally-friendly features, it’s not surprising that there are so few people trying to build this type of housing.