Princeton Council will tonight hold a hearing on a revision to the town’s zoning code, to further restrict the types of houses that can be built in town. Based on a perception that there are too many large houses being built, members of Council are aiming to make it much harder for people with smaller-than-average plots of land to build bigger homes. The problem is that in this case, the proposed change would make it illegal to build many traditional Princeton homes.
As local architect Marina Rubina explained on ‘Planet Princeton’, many homes in Princeton’s traditional neighborhoods would not be allowed to be built under the proposed change in zoning. The homes shown in the photo at top are on Leigh Avenue. Although these homes represent some of the best walkable housing in Princeton, they are more densely-built than is allowed by zoning. Up to this point, homes like these on small lots have benefitted from a form of density bonus that allows the house to occupy more of its site, but Council is now aiming to eliminate this bonus. The good news is that the existing homes would not have to be knocked down, even though they don’t conform to zoning. The bad news is that it will make it even harder to build these kinds of walkable, more-affordable homes on small lots.
The proposed change is even stranger when we recall that these homes on Leigh Avenue are in the recently-designated Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District. That means that the town believes both that these houses should be preserved exactly as they are, but also that we shouldn’t build any more houses like them. It is also unfortunate that the town wants to rigidly apply zoning to a traditional neighborhood like this. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was built before Princeton had zoning. The zoning came later, at a time when suburbanization and automobile-oriented planning was considered the way of the future. To encourage walkability, the town should probably be making it easier to build homes like those on Leigh Avenue, but instead Council will make this harder.
On Western Way, we see more examples of traditional Princeton homes that would be illegal to construct under Council’s proposed zoning change. Many Western Way homes meet current zoning standards using the density bonus that increases the allowable size of houses on small lots. Council wants to eliminate this bonus. The proposed change shows the difficulty of regulating the size of houses. Princeton Council wants to try to limit the appearance of “McMansion”-style homes, but the zoning tools available are crude and ill-suited to many Princeton neighborhoods. Restrictions on the size of homes also do little to address the town’s affordability problems, and in fact risk making it harder to build the kind of accessory units that could help provide a solution.
UPDATE 2.26.2019: Council voted to postpone a decision on the zoning ordinance until their meeting on March 25, 2019.