What is the value of one vacant lot? And in a densely populated area like downtown Princeton, what constitutes a vacant lot?
Those are good questions. And like all good questions, there are few easy answers to tidily sum everything up. In the case of one potential — emphasize potential — 0.14-acre lot where Vandeventer Avenue meets Park Place, the answer to this question involves a generous helping of what-could-bes and what-might-have-beens.
The potential vacant lot in question is part of an historic property just a few hundred feet from Nassau Street at 19 Vandeventer, known as the Beatty House and dating back to when the United States of America was still in diapers. The house and its then-brand new $600,000 makeover was on the market five years ago (U.S. 1, May 19, 2010). Set for sale smack in the center of the worst real estate market since the Great Depression, the Beatty House and its surrounding land did not sell for the almost $2.2 million asking price. Nor did it sell for a reduced $1.8 million. The historic house simply stayed on the market until 2011, when it was quietly taken off the shelves.
The occupant of the house, Robin Resch, a photographer and architect, along with a silent partner, bought out the interest of her ex-husband, and set out on an ambitious — and what she thought would be straightforward — plan to develop homes on the land that serves as her backyard.
Her plans to create two separate residential units attached to the house, with access from Park Place, turned out to be quite well received by the neighbors and the powers that be in town, Resch said. The Princeton Planning Board ultimately approved the request for several minor variances to permit the project.
Resch’s project was to be a pair of 3-bedroom, 3.5 bath townhouses at 8 and 10 Park Place, featuring things like an open-floor interior, a terraced garden, a recessed backyard terrace with a water wall and native plants, and, perhaps most alluring for any Princeton property, off-street parking (see rendering above).
So it was not NIMBY caterwauling, but rather time, ultimately, that derailed the project; time gobbled by the necessary and often complicated steps of going through the approval process to build anything in a town that works so hard to protect what it has and presents to the world.
“It was cool,” Resch said of the project that she designed herself. “But my partners are not interested in building anymore.”
However, the approvals she eventually got remain greenlighted for anyone who buys the Beatty House package. But meanwhile, thanks to the demand for even small chunks of land within walking distance of everything in downtown Princeton, Resch and her real estate agent, Barbara Blackwell of Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s, have come up with a creative alternative.
The listing now consists of what you could call Plan A and Plan B. The A plan offers the house on the full lot (approximately 80 feet wide and 200 feet deep, or .36 acres) for $2.85 million.
The B plan offers the house for sale separate from the back portion of the property that fronts on Park Place. Under Plan B the house (which sits on .22 acres) is available for $1.995 million. The .14-acre lot alone (it measures about 80 feet wide by 78 feet deep) would sell for $875,000 — contingent on the seller getting Planning Board approval for the subdivision.The size of house that could be built on that potential sub-divided lot could be more than 2,500 square feet of living space and meet the zoning code — or could possibly be more than that if someone sought a zoning variance.
If $875K sounds like a lot of money for a plot of land that would fit easily inside a baseball diamond, consider the neighborhood. Further up Park Place, a lot that measures 20 feet by 60 feet (the site of a freestanding garage apartment owned by U.S. 1 editor Richard K. Rein) is assessed at more than $450,000. That’s just the land.
In short the Beatty House backyard is a rare commodity in downtown Princeton — a scalable, vacant residential lot that does not involve a teardown. “Most of the lots in Princeton are pretty well gone,” said Bob Hillier, an architect and developer, and one of Resch’s architecture professors at Princeton, who also owns Studio Hillier at 190 Witherspoon Street. “Vacant lots are all relying on teardowns now.”
The economics of vacant lots in populated and highly sought-after places like Princeton usually revolve around certain formulas that calculate how much it costs to buy a property, demolish it, and build from scratch. And while it might sound as if it would be far more expensive to buy and destroy an existing structure than to just buy a nice piece of land and start digging foundations, that’s not always the case, Hillier said.
Teardowns give you a huge leg up in that the infrastructure is already in place, he said. Starting from scratch means having to run electrical, water, and sewer lines. If the replacement house can use the same foundation that is another advantage in time and money. The costs of one way do not really overshadow the other. You’ll either pay more up front for the building and demolition, or more on the back end making sure everything is in the ground before you start to make your dream home.
(In the case of the potential vacant lot at 19 Vandeventer, it turns out, many of the services are already in place for anyone who would buy the rear portion of the 200-foot deep lot. “We made sure to get all the services in while the Park Place road work was being done,” says the seller, Robin Resch, referring to the installation of new sewer lines in the neighborhood, which included two curb cuts along her property — one for the existing house and another for an additional home, if it materializes in the future . “In addition to that, we have done substantial site engineering work to deal with storm water,” says Resch.)
The thing to keep in mind as a builder looking at an empty lot, Hillier said, is how much you spend versus how much you can get back when you hand over the keys. Like retail, the general equation for turning any real profit is to be able to sell something for three times what you paid for it. That’s a great formula with a big if.
“If you pay $1 million for a lot,” Hillier said, “you want to sell the finished house for $3 million. The problem is, the neighborhood can’t support a $3 million house if most other houses are in the mid-$500,000s.”
Hillier was indeed referring to Resch’s property and said that the economics of building and selling one large house would likely be prohibitive there, which is why Resch was smart enough to design two houses. Getting $1.5 million for two houses, he said, would be much easier than getting $3 million for a single home, especially in an age when the cavernous McMansion and its high price tag are out of favor.
Blackwell, a Princeton native who holds a master’s in the history of art and architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and has a long resume of hands-on experience in home construction and renovation, agreed that teardowns are far and away the most common causes for vacant residential lots in Princeton. These, she said, are smaller lots that buyers and builders want and that are too small for the town to snap up for preservation.
Princeton’s effort to buy larger tracts of vacant land and, therefore, curb the amount of new homes being built has certainly paid off for the municipality. The former Johnson estate on the Great Road, for example, could have had 60 new houses, had a developer actually been able to secure the land before the municipality bought it and turned the parcel into soccer fields and park space.
But some larger tracts do actually see development. Take the old Westerly Road Church property, which went on the market when the church moved to Bunn Drive in 2013 (and changed its name to Stone Hill Church). Even this church’s one foundation — built as a prefab back in the 1950s — could not withstand the wrecking ball. The land was quickly carved up into lots, which were sold from around $400,000 to $700,000.
For the most part, however, there aren’t many more big pieces of real estate in the offing in Princeton any time soon. And Resch’s property obviously is not large enough to tempt the town to make it into a park. But empty residential lots do happen on occasion, as was the case in a Cleveland Lane transaction in February. The buyer bought the house — Grover Cleveland’s former carriage house, which backs up to the former president’s Hodge Road house, Westland — in part because it had an empty, buildable lot attached to it.
The selling price of the house and vacant lot on Cleveland Lane: $2.785 million. Blackwell sees this transaction as a comparable to the Beatty House property. The plots of land are smaller on Vandeventer and Park, but the location is even closer to the heart of town.
The house itself is inarguably a grand home with a legitimately epic history. The house was originally built around 1780 on what is today the land above the underground portion of Firestone Library on the Princeton University campus. It was built by Jacob Hyer, a colonel in the Continental Army and the owner of the original Hudibras Tavern. The house played host to the Continental Congress when Princeton served as the capital of the fledgling nation.
The house stayed in the Beatty family until 1875 when Jacob Vandeventer bought it and had it moved to its present location on his namesake street, at the corner of Park Place. By the mid-20th century the house effectively ceased to be a private residence. It housed a girls’ school before becoming a boarding house in the 1960s. From there it became an antiques dealer, the headquarters for Durell Construction, and then offices for Looney Ricks Kiss, the architecture firm.
The Historical Society of Princeton bought the property in 1991 and leased it to the commercial tenants, who enjoyed a 15-car parking lot in the back portion of the property.
Born in Brooklyn, Resch was raised in Connecticut and wanted to study architecture — her father was an architect who always told her it was a rough living — and design in college. Instead she studied art history at the University of Michigan, after spending a year in Turin, Italy, with a family of artisans. After Michigan, which she attended because she “wanted to attend a big school that had lots of options,” Resch considered studying fashion in Paris. She instead went to work for some fashion designers in New York as a marketing director and public relations agent.
It was in New York that she met her first husband, a Belgian national and curator of a museum there. She moved to Rotterdam, got married, had two children, and again considered studying architecture. But again, something else came up.
This time it was photography, which is still her main job. She operates Robin Resch Studio from 19 Vandeventer, though she had an office in town during the renovations. She concentrated on photography while living in Europe. But after a divorce and a move back to the states, Resch decided “it was time to address my regrets.”
She applied to the architecture programs of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and to her own surprise was accepted to all of them. She chose Princeton because she felt it was the best fit and because it offered her a full scholarship and a stipend. Her mom thought she was crazy, of course — two kids, newly single, and in a strange town studying the subject she had begged her daughter not to study.
And Resch was in way over her head. She understood the basics of design, she says, but not a thing about architecture proper. Everyone else in her class had been trained in architectural principles, computer-aided design, and whatever else was out there.
But Resch hung on and got her master’s in 2003, just in time to take her knowledge into a real world project at 19 Vandeventer Street. On the other side of that project, Resch said she is glad to have done it, and that she wouldn’t do anything differently in terms of the design. But she admits that had she been able to foresee the middle of the project, she might have been more tempted to listen to mom about that architecture stuff.
She also learned a lot, she said, from designing the two units that ultimately she will not see built. Resch designed the project herself. She does architectural work alongside her photography, but did not pursue her architecture license. “The plans for the project were pretty much designed by me and then signed and drawn up by my business partner’s architect, who is a registered architect,” she said.
Resch said her partners decided that the wait and the tribulations of getting approvals over four years was enough to siphon away their enthusiasm for building the project. She has attempted to recruit other partners to help her build, but has found that like all solid relationships in life, you need to find the right people, and that’s proven difficult. And besides, it’s time to move on.
“It would be nice to build,” she said. “But how much can you give to something?”
Resch feels she has already given a lot. When Resch and her husband bought the house in 2005, for $1.1 million, it needed a huge amount of work, everywhere from the kitchen to the foyer to the bedrooms. Resch has lived in the house with her son and daughter since 2006, though her daughter, Ysemay, is now at Rhode Island School of Design studying art. Her son, Sam, is a senior at Princeton University. Resch and her then husband spent $600,000 to restore the place.
Among the big ticket items: The “chef’s kitchen,” which had to be created from scratch from the old office space and features an original brick walk-in fireplace and cathedral ceiling.
The exposed beams in the master bedroom are the original beams, but when Resch found them in 2005 “they were sagging to the top of the door frame,” she says. And since the attic housed the heating and air conditioning systems, it was a massive undertaking.
The entire electrical system had to be replaced — a job that took more than a year. It took the painters about the same amount of time to strip away the exterior paint, repair various holes and cracks in the wood siding, and put on a fresh coat. And the plumbing system had to be ripped out and replaced.
The Historical Society of Princeton, which sold the house to Resch, placed three restrictions on the property. There could be no changes to the living room fireplace place mantle (which comes from the Adams period), or to exterior facade.
Nor could they alter the interior staircase, which is entirely original. Resch was able to paint it, but no other modifications were allowed. Resch says she never wanted to modify it anyway. She says the hand craftsmanship of the bannister and posts suit the house perfectly.
Still, those renovations happened more than a few years ago now. And while Blackwell said that the inside is as beautiful as ever, the outside is showing signs of having been out in the New Jersey weather these past five or ten years. The exterior, she said, needs a new paint job and fine-tuning.
In a real way, Resch’s property is competing against itself, not just the homes on the other end of town. Chief to keep in mind about the marketing of the Beatty House and its satellite plot of land out back is that it was on the market a few years ago for a lot less money.
“The real estate community has a very long memory,” Blackwell said. “I have a tough time with my associates to get them to know the value.” The value of the house and lot needs to be realized for two main reasons, she said — one, because it’s real and inherent to the property, and two, because in a very pragmatic way, the house needs to make its money back.
Blackwell also said that the size of the lot, sitting at barely 15 percent of an acre, has been a holdup for some buyers who don’t want to build on such a small tract. “If she had a bigger lot, I would have sold it overnight,” Blackwell said.
Beyond itself, the house is indeed competing against its own market, the houses on the other side of town. In the western section of Princeton, large and luxury properties are selling well — even above asking price. “That’s what we’re working against,” she said.
Still, Blackwell isn’t that worried. While initial interest in the separate properties was cooler than hoped for, Blackwell said the repackaging of the properties as a single sale brought out several new buyers who were also persuaded by the lower price point.
According to Blackwell, as of this writing, there is a potential buyer with a palatable offer in the works.
The question, behind the question of monetary value, of course, is the one surrounding the elusive concept of home — what exactly will the eventual buyers of Resch’s lot do with it? We certainly know what they could do. They could build Resch’s vision for the two units. Or, they could, of course, leave the land alone and have a relatively large backyard.
Resch likes the backyard fine, but said that after all is said and done, the Beatty House doesn’t really need all that yard attached to it. The property would do fine without it and the land out back could be put to better use.
What she would really like to see is someone who will buy it to make their home, whatever their version of that word turns out to be. Blackwell is confident that the ultimate buyer will follow this path. “Maybe it doesn’t make sense for a builder to do it,” she said, referring to building a residence on the lot. “But it does make sense for the individual who’s buying it.” She is also confident that the buyers will not be “flippers,” but rather people who want to make this small slice of Princeton their home.
Hillier did not weigh in on what could or should become of the Beatty House itself, but did say that it would be most valuable as a commercial property (getting zoning approval for a commercial use, however, might be virtually impossible in a town that now highly values residential housing in its central business district).
But Resch sees it as a home and a plot that have the potential to combine something old and something new. “I think it would appeal to someone who wants to build their house,” Resch said. “There are a lot of people in town who don’t find what they want.”