How Transit Could Guide Future Housing Construction in Princeton and New Jersey

An NJ Transit train arriving at Raritan station. (click to expand)

The question of where Princeton will add new affordable housing looks set to be answered in the coming weeks, with the town’s attorney describing negotiations on a housing settlement as “in the final stretch“. The addition of new affordable housing is necessary to comply with state law and to provide homes for people who live and work in the Princeton area. The sites for new housing in other towns often seem poorly planned, however, such as the plan that was passed by West Windsor last year, which envisioned several large apartment blocks in fields that are not particularly close to anything. Several of these sites are likely to be very dependent on car use, further reinforcing planning based around cars and traffic. Is there a better way? A proposal from a local planner (author of “A Smart Growth Vision for the Princeton Region“) potentially offers an alternative.

Princeton’s bus routes do not benefit from transit-supportive zoning. (click to expand)

The proposed ‘Transit-Oriented Smart Growth Vision‘ is based on three key ideas:

  1. Incentivize growth around existing transit stops
  2. Discourage growth anywhere auto-dependent
  3. Create new transit lines and stops

A key principle is that mixed-use, affordable housing should be incentivized in areas that are served by existing bus and rail routes. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy took steps in early October to accelerate the development of parking lots and other land owned by NJ Transit, near existing rail stations. In Princeton, however, there have been no serious efforts to encourage development near transit, despite the recommendations of the ‘US-1 Growth Strategy‘ to implement ‘transit-supportive zoning’. What would it look like if Princeton moved to a transit-oriented master plan for housing? A map that accompanies the ‘Transit-Oriented Smart Growth Vision’ shows areas around existing and proposed transit stops, which would potentially be sites of higher-density housing in future. In Princeton, it looks like this:

Transit-adjacent areas of Princeton, NJ, via “A Transit-Oriented Smart Growth Vision for the Garden State” (click to expand)

Princeton has just one rail station, the ‘Dinky’ station on Alexander Street, which has been proposed as a site for 300 new homes as part of the town’s draft fair housing plan. The town also has three major bus routes (NJ Transit 605 and 606, and Coach USA 100 service). The bus routes see reasonable ridership, but their success is undermined because most of their service areas in Princeton are zoned for low-density housing. By increasing the allowable density of housing around existing bus routes and at the Dinky station, Princeton could create a housing master plan based on a rational objective: increasing access to transit, and supporting public transportation. Princeton might, for example, allow housing of up to four or five levels on the parts of North Harrison Street, Nassau Street, Witherspoon Street, and Route 206, which are currently served by bus routes.

This plan would potentially help New Jersey create affordable housing opportunities without the sprawl that has sometimes been a by-product of existing state fair housing regulations. Some questions remain about whether areas that lack transit service (e.g. much of western Princeton) should be exempt from helping to address local housing needs. An unintended consequence of a transit-oriented housing plan could be that wealthy communities try to cancel nearby bus routes, or re-route them into other neighborhoods, to avoid new housing that might be built nearby.  On the other hand, transit could be a useful guide to future housing construction in Princeton, and certainly better than the secretive and arbitrary process for selecting sites for affordable housing that is current practice.

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