Debate over development on Humbert Street will continue May 6

The Princeton Planning Board will continue to hear Simplify Living Inc.'s application to build a three-unit development at 23-25 Humbert St. at its May 6 meeting.LEA KAHN/STAFF
×
The Princeton Planning Board will continue to hear Simplify Living Inc.'s application to build a three-unit development at 23-25 Humbert St. at its May 6 meeting.LEA KAHN/STAFF

The would-be developer of a three-unit townhouse development on Humbert Street, which is a small, one-way street off Wiggins Street, will have to wait until next month to find out whether the Princeton Planning Board will approve the application.

The Princeton Planning Board began a public hearing on Simplify Living Inc.’s application to build the three-unit development at 23-25 Humbert St. at its April 15 meeting, but ran out of time to complete the public hearing.

The board will continue the public hearing at its May 6 meeting.

But the application is running headlong into opposition from neighbors because of the size of the proposed building. It would extend about 100 feet along the side side of Humbert Lane, which is a small, private driveway that also provides access to two houses on the north side of the lane. The townhouse building is planned for the south side of the lane.

While the proposed development is a permitted use in the Residential-4 zone, the applicant is seeking several variances, including a variance for open space. The plan shows 1,200 square feet of usable open space, but the ordinance requires 1,800 square feet.

The zoning ordinance permits a maximum impervious coverage of the lot by the building and associated sidewalks and driveways of 36%, but the applicant has proposed 70.9%.

Akash Ghulyani, who is the applicant’s representative, told the Planning Board that a decision was made to demolish the two-family house at 23-25 Humbert St. The house, which was built around 1920, was outdated and in poor condition.

The three townhouses, each of will have three bedrooms, a great room and a kitchen, will be rental units for now, Ghulyani said. They may be sold at some point in the future – about a 1% chance, he said.

The goal is to have the three units certified to meet silver LEED standards “at a minimum,” Ghulyani said. LEED is the abbreviation for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is a rating program for green buildings devised by the U.S. Green Building Council. It encourages the construction of buildings that use less water and energy.

Humbert Lane will be paved and the sidewalks will be replaced, Ghulyani said. There will be parking for three cars at the rear of the building. Provisions have been made for electric vehicle charging stations and for a bicycle rack.

One unit will face Humbert Street, the middle unit will face Humbert Lane and the third unit will face the open space area and the three-car parking lot. Decks will be provided for the three units.

Jim Chmielak, the applicant’s engineer and planner, said his client would maintain access along Humbert Lane to the two existing houses. There is an easement that provides access to the houses at 6-8 Humbert Lane and 10 Humbert Lane.

Chmielak acknowledged that a variance will be needed for impervious coverage, but his client did not feel that the amount of proposed impervious coverage was “inconsistent” with the rest of the neighborhood. There are significant parking areas behind many of the houses in the neighborhood, he said.

When the meeting was opened for public comment, several neighbors raised objections to the plan – mostly centered on the size of the building, the number of units that were being proposed, and the development’s impact on the neighborhood character.

Leigh Gibson said that eliminating the third townhouse would be the best way to meet the requirement for open space. She urged the Planning Board to “think extremely hard” about the standard that would be set for the neighborhood if the variance requests are granted.

“The precedent this will set on Humbert Street for the redevelopment of a number of homes that are clearly rental properties in decline will be enormous,” Gibson said.

Nearly all of the lots on Humbert Street are non-conforming to the current zoning ordinance, she said.

“I don’t know why we, as neighbors, owe this new owner the privilege – at our expense – of a three-unit development,” especially when the immediate neighbors have not expressed any enthusiasm for the plan, Gibson said.

Approving the application sets the precedent and has the potential to turn Humbert Street into “one long, apartment building-looking thing,” she said.

Humbert Street is lined mostly with older one- and two-family houses, some of which have been converted into rental apartments.

Jim Ross, who lives across the street from the proposed development, said Humbert Lane is very narrow, and three units is “way overkill.” If students rent the townhouses, there will be more cars.

“It is not quaint. We moved to Princeton for quaint. This is not a low-tax town. To see a hulking building will disrupt the neighborhood. When we first moved here, there were only two units (at 23-25 Humbert St.),” Ross said.

Don Greenberg, who owns 10 Humbert Lane, said the building is “way too big for the space.” He said his long-term plan is to renovate the house, which is currently a rental property, and live in it.

“I get it, it’s a difficult project,” Greenberg said. But if the developer wants to be “sustainable,” the size of the building should be reduced, he said.

A one- or two-family house would eliminate the need for the open-space and impervious coverage variances, he said.

“It seems like a money grab,” Greenberg said.

Dan Brown, who owns the house at 6-8 Humbert Lane and rents it out, said he enjoyed the “bucolic” view of the back yard of 23-25 Humbert St., across from his home when he lived there.

“I don’t think it’s a great addition to the neighborhood. We would like to see something that keeps the character of the neighborhood intact. It does not represent the Princeton that I grew up in,” Brown said.

Steve Lydon, a planner hired by one of the objectors, argued that the proposed development is “oriented” contrary to the Princeton code. He cited the March 30 letter from the town’s land use engineer and zoning officer, which stated that “the R-4 zoning for attached dwellings envisioned side-by-side attached units fronting on the street with conventional side and rear yards.”

The plan does not provide for the three attached units to front on a public street, Lydon said. One of the townhouses will have frontage on Humbert Street, and the others have frontage on Humbert Lane, which is not a public street, he said. They do not have conventional yards.