Princeton Mayoral Candidates Talk Planning, Affordability

Princeton Mayoral Candidates, Liz Limpet and Peter Marks (click to expand)

Princeton Mayoral Candidates, Liz Lempert and Peter Marks (click to expand)

Princeton will elect a Mayor in the Election next Tuesday, November 8. Voters will choose between incumbent Liz Lempert (Democrat) and challenger Peter Marks (Republican). In their recent debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, the questions touched on many issues of planning, development and neighborhood character. We followed up with the candidates with some questions of our own, to help local residents make up their mind about who our next Mayor should be.

We asked 4 questions to each candidate, and we were delighted to get detailed answers. Thanks go out to both candidates for participating. First, here are answers from the challenger, Peter Marks:

1. What are the things that you aim to change if Princeton elects you Mayor in 2016?

Peter Marks: My top priority would be to rework the master plan, with the goal of stabilizing our population and preserving our small town character. Zoning would be tightened and enforced. Existing open spaces would be preserved, as would the predominately single family character of our core downtown neighborhoods.

The University – whose grandiose expansion plans threaten our community – would find the new master plan much less malleable than the one which was modified to permit the dinky to be truncated. Developers like Avalon Bay would find much greater resistance to their proposals, and much more informed representatives on the other side of the table.

Another priority would be to work with other municipalities to mitigate or eliminate some of the many state mandates that make our communities so needlessly expensive. The later interpretations of the original Mt. Laurel decision are among the many state decrees that I would seek to alter or dispense with. It is absurd that we accept an affordable housing “obligation” predicated upon growth that has not yet occurred – and will never occur if I succeed in tightening our zoning. We need not be ashamed of preserving our lovely little community, with its encircling green belt and its distinctive character. It is not a crime to create something that is lovely. Nor is it a crime to seek to preserve what has long been lovely.

2. You have been a critic of zoning that has allowed intensified development to go forward in Princeton. However, as a developer, you have been involved in a project in Ohio (the ‘Allington’ development) that aims to build houses on farmland that will sell for upwards of $800K. What’s up with that? Do you regard this construction as a good model for future development in the Princeton area?

Peter Marks: “Allington”, a single family subdivision that I propose to create on a ca. 103 acre tract of farmland, is definitely not a model for development in the Princeton area.

The site is the last remaining portion of a 500 acre horse farm. The property is lovely. It is situated on a road that the State of Ohio has designated as a scenic byway — but is flanked on the north and the south by new housing developments, and, prior to my purchase, was rezoned as a 56 lot extension of the northern subdivision.

I did not have the means to buy the property and keep it as a farm, but I wanted to prevent it from being stripped, flattened, and converted into another sterile subdivision. So I spent a year creating a site plan that preserves the fields, woods, and mature trees that define the property. I then down zoned the land – from the 56 lots previously approved, to the 25 lots that I consider to be the maximum number the property will accommodate without losing its existing character. And I am now trying to market the property as 15 lots, many of which represent combination lots that would be deed restricted to prohibit future lot splits. Half of the property would be owned in common, and would function as a series of distinctive private parks.

It remains to be seen whether or not I will succeed. The lots are very expensive. The houses will also be very expensive – the result of my preference for four sided architecture, natural materials, and unpretentious designs that look as though they have grown out of the land.

If I succeed, a lovely tract of land will be preserved indefinitely and the funding will come exclusively from Allington’s residents — without recourse to public funding, and without tax breaks (e.g. those available for creating conservation easements). The public will benefit in many ways, but the public will not be required to fund the project and the local government will not be required to maintain it.

I recognize that not every farm can be developed in the manner I am attempting with Allington. But I do not believe that developments such as the one I propose should be condemned because they are accessible only to the wealthy. Rather, I believe that people who preserve large tracts of land – or large houses on spacious lots (e.g. those on Library Place and Hodge Road) – are performing a public service, one for which they should be thanked, not criticized.

3. The town of Princeton is embarking on a project to map and preserve ‘neighborhood character’. How can Princeton preserve neighborhood character and also make space for the large number of people who work in town but are priced out of living here?

Peter Marks: It should be plain to all that we cannot achieve both objectives. A choice is necessary, and my strong preference is to choose to preserve our small town character.

“In town” is often defined to include the Route 1 corridor. I do not consider that corridor to be Princeton, and I do not consider that those who work in that corridor have a right to reside in Princeton.

Many of those who commute into downtown Princeton are employed by the University. I do not consider that the University’s expansionist dreams should trump the needs and desires of our existing residents.

There are many other communities in which those who choose to work in or around Princeton can reside. Many Princetonians commute to New York City – not because they enjoy a four hour round trip train ride, but because they feel more comfortable in our lovely little community than they would in a city. Much of New York is “walkable”, but it is also anonymous; by contrast, Princeton’s downtown neighborhoods have long been distinguished by being both “walkable” and friendly. They are friendly because they are uncluttered, low, and green.

No reasonable non-resident would consider that he or she has a “right” to reside in Princeton. And no reasonable observer would consider that the presumed rights of non-residents trump the rights of Princeton’s residents.

4. Finally, how would you propose to make Princeton affordable for the people who live and work here?

Peter Marks: I am much less concerned about the cost of relocating to Princeton than I am about the cost of continuing to reside here.

The cost of relocating to Princeton can be controlled only through destructive, high density rezoning and generous subsidies. The burden of both components is borne exclusively by existing residents. That is as unfair as the zoning outcome is undesirable.

The cost of living here, by contrast, can be controlled by moderating property taxes. That requires mitigating or eliminating the many state mandates that make New Jersey’s communities needlessly expensive. It requires being more sensitive to the cost of projects that are sold as improvements. And it requires limiting increases in land values, which can be accomplished only if we stop encouraging the redevelopment of our predominately single family downtown neighborhoods.

As should be obvious to anyone who has studied or experienced urban environments, the transformation of our lovely little community into a “regional hub” is necessarily incompatible with the goals of affordability, diversity, and sustainability. Let’s stop pretending that Princeton is different. It is not.


And here are answers from the incumbent Mayor, Liz Lempert:

1. What are the things that you aim to change if Princeton elects you Mayor in 2016?

Liz Lempert: I ran for mayor four years ago, and am running for re-election now because I believe that municipal government has an important role to play in shaping our community, and in planning for the kind of future we want to build together.

I believe as a government we are obligated to do more with less. With consolidation, we operate more efficiently and cost-effectively than before. We need to continue to look for efficiencies so we can keep costs down while providing the excellent services our residents expect.

I also believe government has a responsibility to lift all boats, and to think not just for ourselves, but also for future generations. That means doing our fair share when it comes to affordable housing, recognizing the historic importance of our older neighborhoods, and creating a welcoming community for all.

We must also work towards sustainability – by being good stewards of our open space; creating a safe transportation network for those who either can’t or don’t drive; and protecting the character and scale of our neighborhoods and the vibrancy of our downtown.

I approach all of these challenges with an attitude of optimism that we as a community can pull together the smartest, most creative minds to preserve what is exemplary about our town, while forging a future for Princeton that is more sustainable, inclusive and humane.

2. Princeton is facing lots of questions about open space acquisition and maintenance. As a Township Council Representative, you advanced a plan to knock down a house opposite your home, effectively making a park, which is now being maintained by the Department of Public Works. But the town has struggled to manage other open spaces. What’s up with that? And what is the right balance for the town for open space preservation going forward?

Liz Lempert: Princeton has a dedicated Open Space Trust Fund, established by the voters through a referendum, and funded through a special tax. The funds largely pay for new acquisitions and debt service on past acquisitions, and also help pay for maintenance. Almost always, the municipality teams up with outside partners when acquiring property. For example, in 2015, the municipality partnered with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program, the New Jersey State Park Service, Mercer County, the Princeton Battlefield Society and the Friends of Princeton Open Space to acquire the D’Ambrisi property, a 4.6-acre addition to Princeton Battlefield State Park.

In the case of 59 Meadowbrook, the property was largely paid for via a $600K grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The rental property, which was situated directly in a floodplain, had suffered from repeated major flooding events, and FEMA had paid multiple times to treat mold and rehabilitate the home. Time after time, renters had their belongings destroyed and needed to evacuate and relocate. The effort to acquire and demolish the “Flood House” predated my election to Township Committee, and I recused myself on the acquisition vote.

As mayor, I appointed a special task force to review and make recommendations about proper stewardship of our open spaces. Princeton is fortunate to have many volunteer groups that work alongside staff to maintain our parks and open spaces, including Friends of Princeton Open Space, the Marquand Park Foundation, and Friends of Herrontown Woods, among others. Likewise, the Meadowbrook neighbors stepped forward to donate private mowing services and help relieve the Department of Public Works from full maintenance duties.

3. The town of Princeton is embarking on a project to map and preserve ‘neighborhood character’. How can Princeton preserve neighborhood character and also make space for the large number of people who work in town but are priced out of living here?

Liz Lempert: Several neighborhoods in Princeton have experienced dramatic changes. They are seeing houses torn down and replaced by new houses uncharacteristically large for their block that eliminate tree canopy on the surrounding lot, add excessive paved surfaces, place inordinate focus on garages, and diminish the character of their street.

The original 3 to 4 bedroom homes, which sold for an average of $550K-$630K, are being replaced by 4-5 bedroom homes selling for an average of $1.3M to $1.5M. The Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative is intended to address these trends. The consultants are tasked with developing a strategic approach to understanding the various dimensions involved in our land use regulations and the housing construction they allow and, in some cases, encourage. The consultants are looking at the economic dimensions, including calculations that drive decisions to rebuild vs. rehabilitate existing homes, and the impact that teardowns and rebuild activity has on equity, affordability and diversity.  Interested residents are encouraged to participate in a focus group meeting on Thursday, November 3th, 7:30-9:30pm, at Witherspoon Hall.

4. Finally, how would you propose to make Princeton affordable for the people who live and work here?

Liz Lempert: Princeton is expensive because it is a highly desirable place to live, and affordability is a challenge. Princeton has a long history of building affordable housing above and beyond state mandates. These efforts have had a positive impact on maintaining economic diversity in our community. Princeton requires that new market-rate developments include 20 percent affordable units, and I vigorously support upholding this requirement. The municipality cannot set the price for market rate homes and apartments, but we can develop policies that help bring down the cost of living. For example, developing a safe, attractive bicycle network can make Princeton more livable and affordable, especially for those who live and work in town, by enabling residents to live without a car and the associated costs.


Thanks again to both candidates for participating. There is also an election for President of the USA next Tuesday, along with a number of other positions. For more information on voting locations and candidates, check out the League of Women Voters site.

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