Witherspoon Street makes for a rehabilitation dilemma

Seeking a balance between improving properties and discouraging gentrification.

By: Jennifer Potash
   Princeton Borough officials may need to strike a balance between improving properties in the Witherspoon Street neighborhoods and not encouraging gentrification, which could force out longtime residents.
   That was one of the conclusions from a meeting of Princeton Future, a nonprofit citizens group that promotes a holistic approach to planning for downtown development, with the Borough Council on Tuesday.
   Princeton Future intends to draft a downtown master plan by October for consideration by the Princeton Regional Planning Board. The Princeton Community Master Plan is up for renewal this year and the Planning Board has begun its review.
   Princeton Future holds meetings with residents in various downtown neighborhoods and makes periodic reports to the Borough Council on the neighbors’ concerns as well as recommendations.
   In describing the likes and dislikes of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood at two meetings last month, residents favored the historic characteristics and objected to the overcrowded rental properties that harm the area by generating excess garbage and unkempt yards.
   Their concerns pointed out a problem the borough faces — improving the neighborhood but avoiding forcing out residents who could not afford more expensive, redeveloped properties.
   Developers constantly appeal to the borough for zoning changes in order to locate new housing units, stores and office space in the already densely packed Witherspoon Street area, Mayor Marvin Reed said.
   Lately, several multi-unit residential properties in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood have been up for sale in the $950,000 range, the mayor said.
   If the borough gives in and allows the changes, then the properties could be redeveloped and offered at prices out of the reach of many current John-Witherspoon neighborhood residents, the mayor said.
   The neighborhood, bounded by John and Witherspoon streets, is the historically black section of Princeton Borough and one of the most densely populated.
   The gentrification of the neighborhood is a major concern among the residents, Council President Mildred Trotman said. But Councilman David Goldfarb said outside interest in improving the neighborhood should not be dismissed out of hand.
   "I’m afraid we’re using the word gentrification a little too broadly,” he said. "Pushing to fix up houses is generally a good thing and we should not be encouraging the neighborhood to aspire to shabbiness to avoid gentrification."
   Princeton Future has raised the possibility of creating an equity fund, supported by donations, in which a nonprofit group could help neighborhood residents launch small businesses or as a group purchase troubled or overcrowded residential properties.
   Residents of the neighborhoods along Witherspoon Street have long complained about the heavy volume of traffic during the morning and evening rush hours.
   During Princeton Future meetings, the possibility of jitney or other on-demand service was received positively by many residents.
   But a jitney route serving the Witherspoon Street corridor, at an estimated cost of $1 million, might not draw enough riders to be a cost-effective alternative, said Robert Brown, an urban planner working with Princeton Future on the downtown master plan.
   Another option may be to partner with Princeton University to expand its on-campus shuttle system to off-campus locales, said Councilwoman Wendy Benchley.