Thanet Circle redevelopment plan approved by Princeton officials

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The Princeton Council has approved a redevelopment plan for a 15-acre parcel at 100-101 Thanet Circle, clearing the way to transform the former office park into two residential developments that would include market-rate and affordable rental apartments.

The redevelopment plan was approved by a 5-1 vote at a special Princeton Council meeting Feb. 19. Princeton Councilwoman Eve Niedergang cast the lone dissenting vote on the ordinance authorizing the redevelopment plan.

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The five “yes” votes were cast by Princeton Council President David Cohen and Princeton Council members Leticia Fraga, Michele Pirone Lambros, Mia Sacks and Dwaine Williamson.

Mayor Liz Lempert, who only votes when there is a 3-3 vote, said it is “a really good plan for the town.” The town is getting credit for 101 affordable housing units, yet only 301 units would be built.

The Princeton Council also approved a companion resolution that named AvalonBay Communities Inc. to be the redeveloper at the Feb. 19 meeting.

AvalonBay Communities Inc. is the contract purchaser of the abandoned office park. It has agreed to subdivide a 2.1-acre lot off the 15-acre parcel and turn it over to the town. The town will work with a developer to build a 100-percent affordable housing development for senior citizens.

The deal is part of the overall settlement of a lawsuit filed against Princeton by the Fair Share Housing Center. The nonprofit group sued the town because it did not provide for its fair share of affordable housing.

The AvalonBay Communities Inc. development will consist of a 221-unit rental apartment complex that will include 210 market-rate apartments and 11 apartments set aside for affordable housing. Five of the 11 apartments will be earmarked for special needs housing.

Concept plans for AvalonBay Communities show a variety of building types – a four-story building, three-story buildings and several townhouse-style buildings. It may include a clubhouse, a dog park and a playground.

The developer will have to submit a site plan application to the Princeton Planning Board, and go through the approval process. The redevelopment plan sets out the parameters, but the development is still subject to site plan approval.

Several residents questioned aspects of the redevelopment plan.

Bernard Miller, who lives in the adjacent Governor’s Lane development, questioned the maximum 65-foot building height that would be permitted. Developers often build to the maximum allowed, he said.

Cohen, the Princeton Council president, said it is his understanding that AvalonBay Communities’ buildings would not be more than four stories.  A 65-foot maximum height would accommodate a six-story building. The developer is asking for flexibility, which will benefit both the developer and the town, he said.

Resident Joel Schwartz said the redevelopment plan is “less than desirable.” He expressed concern about what the development would look like, based on two concept plans prepared by the developer.

The town is handling it “backwards,” Schwartz said. The town should have included in the ordinance exactly what it wanted, he said.

Other attendees supported the redevelopment plan.

Resident Kevin Wilkes praised the plan, and pointed out that it would be almost impossible to re-use the office buildings. “The simple act of erasing the office buildings and bringing in 301 apartments is remarkable,” he said.

Resident Kate Warren, who made it clear that was speaking for herself and not as a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Board, told the council that she supported the plan. Housing for senior citizens is desperately needed, she explained.

Announcing her decision to vote against the ordinance to adopt the redevelopment plan, Niedergang said she was “uncomfortable” with some aspects of the redevelopment plan.

The juxtaposition of AvalonBay Communities’ “upscale” apartment development next to a “not so upscale”  apartment development made her uncomfortable, Niedergang said.

Niedergang said she understood that senior citizens need a place to live, but so do families. The Fair Share Housing Center said senior citizens can live in “family” housing, but families cannot live in senior citizen housing. She said she would have preferred greater density – more apartments – on the Thanet Road site.

Williamson said he also argued for greater density through an inclusionary development – a mixture of market-rate and affordable housing units – but the plan as presented is acceptable and a “decent” plan.

Sacks said she spent more time “agonizing” over the Thanet Circle redevelopment issue than she spent in making major life decisions. The bulk of the deal had already been decided when the council approved the lawsuit settlement in December 2019, she said.

To vote against the redevelopment ordinance would plunge the town back into litigation and uncertainty, Sacks said. She pointed out that the Thanet Circle redevelopment is absorbing a significant amount of housing outlined in the settlement agreement.

The alternative to the 80-unit affordable senior citizen development – to earn 80 credits for affordable housing – would have meant building more than 400 units because of the ratio of market-rate apartments to affordable housing apartments, Mayor Lempert said.

The affordable senior citizen housing also addressed a “critical need” for housing, Mayor Lempert said. Not everyone is wealthy enough to sell their home and to be able to move to the Stonebridge at Montgomery retirement community, she said.

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