Borough Council approves Palmer Square settlement

5-0 vote removes roadblocks to development of 97 to 100 townhouses at Hulfish North site.

By: Jennifer Potash
   More than a decade of negotiations, discussions and threatened litigation over Palmer Square’s Hulfish North luxury townhouse development boiled down to a single roll call vote Tuesday by the Princeton Borough Council.
   The result was unanimous 5-0 approval by the Borough Council of the developer’s agreement with Palmer Square. Borough Council member Peggy Karcher was absent.
   The conclusion of the long-sought agreement pleased both parties.
   "Obviously we’re very glad the Borough Council approved it and that it happened with a unanimous vote," said David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management, on Thursday.
   Palmer Square will proceed with the rest of its plans and final review with the Landscape Subcommittee of the Princeton Regional Planning Board, Mr. Newton said.
   The expected 100 housing units would be located along Paul Robeson Place between Witherspoon and Chambers streets, many built above the existing one-story garage.
   "We are absolutely all systems go at this stage," he said.
   Permits are needed from Princeton Borough and the state Department of Community Affairs and that process should take about a year, he said.
   The council debated three clarifications it sought to the 45-page agreement negotiated last year by then-Mayor Marvin Reed, then-Councilman and Mayor-elect Joseph O’Neill and Palmer Square principal owners Oded and Henry Aboodi.
   The clarifications sought by the Borough Council dealt with the work of the Landscape Subcommittee, the phasing of affordable-housing units and payments for sewer system upgrades on Spring Street.
   The lack of penalties if Palmer Square fails to complete the project within five years was one of the key points of contention in the discussion leading up to Tuesday night’s vote.
   Councilman Roger Martindell sought a "kicker" to enforce the five-year period and proposed an amendment that would authorize the Borough Council’s negotiating team to seek an acceptable penalty, thus postponing action on the agreement.
   "There is a certain number of carrots for Palmer Square in the agreement," he said. "I think there should be a stick."
   Borough Attorney Michael J. Herbert said Palmer Square would take the last-minute amendment as a signal that the borough was acting in bad faith.
   The amendment failed to win a majority of the council with only Mr. Martindell and Councilman David Goldfarb supporting it.
   In the end, both Mr. Martindell and Mr. Goldfarb voted for the agreement.
   "It is not perfect, but it’s time we got on with it," said Mr. Martindell.
   Mr. Goldfarb said the extended public review resulted in a better agreement and one he found to be "minimally acceptable."
   Some members of the council suggested lobbying the governing body’s representatives on the Princeton Regional Planning Board to add a penalty to their approvals if Palmer Square doesn’t complete the units in five years.
   But Councilwoman Wendy Benchley, who serves on the Planning Board, flatly rejected the idea.
   "I would like Palmer Square to know we had an open and frank discussion and I have absolutely no intention to insist to the Planning Board with regard to any penalty of time limits," she said before casting her vote in favor of the agreement.
   Under the developer’s agreement, Palmer Square will add 10 affordable-housing units within its downtown properties, which include efficiencies and one- and two- bedroom units. The units, under state law, will remain in the affordable-housing inventory for between 20 and 30 years depending on the size of the apartment.
   Before late 2003, Palmer Square insisted it had no obligation to provide affordable housing other than a $57,000 contribution related to the approvals it received from the Planning Board in 1990 for the 114-unit development, of which 17 units have since been built. The borough maintained its affordable housing ordinances required 20 affordable units for the Hulfish North project.
   Palmer Square will also contribute $137,000 for a new sewer line on Spring Street, $306,000 in sewer-connection fees, $71,000 for past improvements on Chambers Street and $10,000 for improvements to Paul Robeson Place.
   For its part of the agreement, the borough will support Palmer Square’s request before the Planning Board to add 5,000 square feet, or another three units, to the project.
   Also, the borough will defend the settlement if it is challenged in court but the borough will not pay for Palmer Square’s legal expenses as the developer originally requested, Mr. Herbert said.
   Borough officials have said the proposed development would generate at least $60 million in new tax ratables for the borough and eliminate the eyesore of an uncovered parking garage facing Paul Robeson Place.
   The project will benefit both Palmer Square and the Princeton community by removing the "eyesore" rear view of the parking garage from Paul Robeson Place, Mr. Newton said.