Harrison Street in Princeton is a busy street, one of three major roads leading from Route 1 into the heart of town. So lots of people saw the For Sale sign at 78 South Harrison, in front of a modest two bedroom, one bath house, occupied by the same family for a half century. The husband had died, the widow had moved away, and the 1,200-square-foot house sitting far back from the road on a beautifully landscaped lot, was priced at $499,999.

Last December it sold for $450,000 and sure enough, in came the wrecking equipment. This little ranch house, like so many others in Princeton, was destined to be torn down. A duplex is being built on the lot.

Say “tear down” to a family who raised their children in a house, and you might get a knee-jerk emotional reaction, if not an actual kick in the shins. All those improvements they made? That new bath they put in five years ago? That new roof? To say nothing of the memories. Why would you take down a perfectly good dwelling to put up another dwelling, one that their neighbors could not afford?

The tear down on South Harrison Street [owned by the late Larry DuPraz, the longtime production supervisor of the Daily Princetonian and an adviser to this newspaper, as well] got a lot of attention and raised a lot of questions. How could the builders be allowed to build something so big and so close to the road? And why didn’t the zoning board stop them?

The simple answer is that — even in Princeton Borough, with a recently enacted “McMansion ordinance” limiting the size of buildings on a lot — it is still possible to put up good-sized houses on decent sized lots. At 78 South Harrison the new duplexes in fact occupy less of the lot than they are entitled to, and no zoning variances were needed.

The driving force in a town with highly prized real estate involves the term “highest and best use.” If your house in Princeton is worth less than $600,000, some real estate agents say, you are better off razing it to build a new, bigger house. All through Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, smaller homes are going off the market, replaced by bigger homes.

New construction is in great demand, and so are big houses, with up-to-date floor plans. Neither is easy to find in Princeton, so you are almost sure to get a good price. This profit-with-a tear-down phenomenon is location specific, says Ron Connor of Keller Williams. “It’s not happening in West Windsor, not happening in Ewing, not happening in Lawrence,” he says. Proximity to Princeton University is key.

“The university is a huge driver to new construction,” says Connor. Next year his client will put a “tear down, build up” house on the market. This Cedar Lane property is just two blocks away from the new duplex at 78 Harrison, in the Riverside district. “Incoming professors can spend $1 million, so they buy new. People want good condition and low maintenance, and most prefer new construction. For almost every tear down I sell, somebody’s grandmother is walking away with an enormous windfall.” He says his client paid $10,000 more than the next bidder, a private party. “They are not stealing these lots for tear down houses. They are paying top dollar.”

“It is part of a natural phenomenon,” says Derek Bridger, Princeton Borough zoning officer. “Here, we have 2,000 square-foot houses, and people want 4,000 square-foot houses.”

On Cedar Lane [the street on which this reporter has lived for many years in a small Cape Cod], zoning allows for 35-foot tall, three-story houses, and new construction towers over Cape Cod houses that are just one and a half stories high. As for floor area, it’s sometimes possible to quadruple the square footage of a small original house.

Until a “McMansion Ordinance” was passed two years ago, builders could go even bigger. Back then zoning codes had a “coverage” limit but no limit on “floor area ratio,” defined as the number of square feet of aggregate floor area of all buildings on a lot (measured from exterior wall to exterior wall), divided by the number of square feet of lot area.

The borough “plugged a hole” in the zoning, says Bridger. “The community voiced concern over the redevelopment of existing lots. The planning board held neighborhood meetings to analyze each district, based on existing homes, to come up with a fair limit. We didn’t want to create a situation where everyone had to come in and get a variance.” When people object, he asks, “Where were you when the neighborhood meetings about this ordinance were being held?”

The so-called “McMansion Ordinance” triggered vociferous objection, and not only because the proposed limits were too generous. Owners in the western section, where houses are bigger and more costly than on the east side of town, thought the ordinance was too restrictive.

For instance, in the neighborhood of Harrison Street, under the old ordinance, the coverage limit for a two-family home was 25 percent. So on a 10,000 square foot lot you could cover only 2,500 square feet with building, but you could build up to three stories on that footprint for a total of 7,500 square feet.

Under the current ordinance, the maximum floor area ratio on that same 10,000 foot lot is 4,500 square feet. If your plans meet the set back requirements, you need make no appearance before the zoning board to build a three-story house with 4,500 feet of living space plus a garage in back. (The ordinance gives extra credit for placing the garage there.)

Now let’s look at the duplex at 78 South Harrison Street. How does it fit into the new limits? So neatly that the owners didn’t need a variance. No neighbors were notified because none needed to be notified.

At the time of sale the property had a one-story 60-year-old frame house, with two bedrooms and one bath, on a lot sized at 95 feet by 150 feet, for a total of 14,257 square feet. Unlike its neighbors on the adjoining streets, it was in a zone that allows for duplexes. The land was assessed for twice the value of the modest dwelling, at $171,800, plus $76,800 for the house.

Callaway listed it at $499,999, calling it a “two-bedroom charmer with large attic and expansion possibilities” and boasting a “delightful patio and gardens.” On December 4 of last year, it sold for $450,000 to Hana and Cyril Kucera, who own a civil engineering firm at 322 Wall Street in Research Park. Most of the time their firm works with developers, including some prestigious ones, like Jasna Polana. They are doing this project through a firm called Belvedere Construction.

On that 78 South Harrison lot, the zoning allows for a whopping 6,400 square feet for one house. That’s because the floor area ratio limit is 40 percent. But the zoning also allows for a duplex with two 2,800 square-foot dwellings. (To put 2,800 square feet in perspective, a new single family home, just around the corner on Patton Avenue, is about 2,850 square feet and sold for $1,475,000.) Each side of the duplex must have a 5,000 square-foot lot.

This duplex does not max out to what is allowed. The builders sacrificed some square footage to keep several beautiful old trees in the back of the property. Instead of 2,800 feet, one unit is 2,462 feet, and the other is 2,610. Instead of a 40 percent floor area ratio on a 10,000 square-foot lot, as allowed in the code, they have a 36 percent FAR on the 14,257-foot lot.

Other code requirements: lots for duplexes must be 60 feet wide, 100 feet deep, and have a 35-foot set back in the rear yard and a 25-foot set back for the front yard. The combined side yards must equal 20 feet, with the smaller yard no less than eight feet.

The builders more than met the requirements for the code but still the zoning office got phone calls. “Any time somebody knocks a house down people are always concerned about what will be built there,” says Bridger.

Perhaps for that reason, no one involved with this construction wanted to be quoted. All of the information was obtained from public records. However, the builders reportedly claim that nearly all of the neighbors like the project, and that prospective buyers are thrilled with the level of quality being put into this house, from the stone facade and Andersen windows to hardwood floors and the beautiful, old trees. Though the South Harrison Street project did not max out the allowable size, the so-called “extra” open space is not visible from Harrison Street. The trees at the back of the property are visible from Patton Avenue.

The borough’s position on tear downs, no surprise, is to welcome the tax revenue that new construction brings. “We can get a higher tax from the same property,” says Neil A. Snyder, tax assessor for the borough.

For example, take the duplex recently built on a tear down across the street from the firehouse at 40 and 42 North Harrison Street. On the old house, with three bedrooms, two and a half baths, a basement, and no garage, taxes were $8,700. Now the borough collects more than $23,000 in taxes on the two new dwellings.

Another advantage of the tear-down syndrome, some point out, is that the replacement dwellings, with more square footage on the same piece of land, strike a blow against suburban sprawl and promote the vitality of the town center.

But others decry the tear down syndrome for its adverse effect on diversity in Princeton. The house at 78 South Harrison with its relatively inexpensive $450,000 price tag could have been a starter home for a small family. The new duplexes, each with four bedrooms and two and a half baths, can be expected to sell for much more — $700,000 or more seems highly probable.

But Connor, the real estate agent, says that all Princeton homeowners are benefiting from tear down housing. “We need affordable housing, but that’s not senior housing. When the price starts at $450,000 and up, that’s not affordable housing.”

Connor points out that, at any given time, more than half of the tear downs are private, instigated by homeowners who bought the lot, or who have lived there for years and they tear it down to build a new house. “Less than $600,000, and it’s a tear down. Make it worth $750,000 and you save the house.”

A professional appraiser who did not want to be identified says that homeowners who want a bigger house have three choices: “You can renovate. You can tear down and build new. Or you can sell to a tear down developer and move. You will find,” he says, “that the last is more profitable. Old people all over Princeton are making pots of money by selling their small old houses and moving to Delaware.”

“I don’t know of anywhere in the state that forbids tearing down a house in good condition and replacing it with new construction, a much larger McMansion,” says a municipal lawyer who has done zoning work in four counties. The new ordinance, he feels, will not prevent big houses replacing smaller houses. “The effect of this ordinance is that fewer of them will be able to do it without board approval. But the master plan for borough and township makes it clear that existing neighborhoods are supposed to be preserved and not radically changed.”

Sheldon Sturges of Princeton Future, a community-based group that examines in-town development, questions whether the zoning law is restrictive enough to prevent “radical change.” What will happen to a neighborhood, he asks, when houses owned by lower-middle income families get replaced by houses that only a richer family can buy?

“What we have is a contest between two philosophies,” says Sturges. “America has been built on the idea that if you are a property owner you can do what you want. But neighborhood character is changing. How neighborhoods regulate themselves and come up with their own standards is something that all of us are very interested in.”

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