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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the October 13, 2004

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Small Town, Big City Housing

For most of us, the purchase of a home is the biggest investment we will ever make. Whether we are getting ready to buy, or are just comparing our own house to those on the market, the price of real estate always fascinates.

It is particularly fascinating in the Princeton area, which offers such stark contrasts: old, small homes in Princeton versus huge new houses in outlying townships. There seems to be an unending supply of newer homes planted in former corn fields, but those close to town are scarce and often lack the square footage and the amenities that are standard for most markets.

"People in Princeton really have good taste and Princeton is a much more beautiful town than most, but people are so desperate in Princeton that they will take anything that is put at them," says Bob Hillier, a hometown Princetonian and founder of the fourth largest architectural firm in the country.

As the keynote speaker for the Mercer Chamber’s Lawrenceville division awards, Hillier will discuss good commercial design for Route 1 on Tuesday, October 19, at the Greenacres Country Club. (Cost: $25. Call 609-393-4143). But for the purposes of this residential real estate issue, Hillier shared his views about how creative zoning can improve Princeton’s live-ability.

Hillier is justly proud of his latest contribution to Princeton’s housing market. He created his latest venture, the Waxwood Apartments on Quarry Street in the Witherspoon neighborhood, out of a weathered brick building that had been a school and then a nursing home. The result: 34 apartments that range from in rents from $1,480 for 948 square feet to $2,600 for 1,553 feet including two bedrooms, two baths, and a private patio.

This school had been built in 1908 for Princeton’s African American students, was expanded in 1938, and after desegregation in 1947 it served as the district’s middle school, with Howard B. Waxwood Jr. as the principal. In 1968 it was turned into a nursing home, and Hillier bought the building when the nursing home vacated in 2002.

His renovations included re-pointing the brick facade, restoring the ceilings to at least 12 feet (some are 16 feet), keeping the classroom layout with its wide hallways, and using existing roof trusses to create lofts. Most important, Hillier restored the more than eight-foot-tall school windows that are so memorable to those who went to school in turn-of-the-century buildings.

As encouragement to Witherspoon residents to remain in what is termed a "gentrifying community," Hillier created a foundation with a financial assistance plan for long-term community residents – those who have lived there at least 10 years or are direct descendants of residents. Also, three additional units are designated as affordable housing, so that, all told, one-fourth of the Waxwood units will be affordable to moderate-income families.

Hillier has designed plenty of contemporary homes worth in the millions, and he and his architect wife, Barbara, live in a home of their design in New Hope, but he grew up in a traditional house near the Institute for Advanced Study. His father was former vice president of RCA Laboratories, and his mother was the proprietor of several flower shops in town. A graduate of Princeton University, where he is an adjunct professor, his architectural firm is based on Alexander Road.

An avid Princeton supporter, Hillier continues his efforts to create affordable places to live down town. Pockets of Princeton, he points out, are under utilized but have high value, and he advocates zones with higher density. "The value of the land has gotten so high that you need to be able to put more building on the land to rationalize the cost to a point where more people can afford it," he says in a telephone interview. He advocates higher housing density around the Princeton Shopping Center, Palmer Square, the stretch of Route 206 near Bayard Lane, and in the Witherspoon neighborhood.

Elsewhere in the Witherspoon neighborhood, large numbers of tenants squeeze into small, old buildings, owned by landlords who are not making either improvements or additions. "You don’t have the zoning that enables you to put more on the land, so they are not going to replace what they have," says Hillier. "They have a good cash flow now – it is a gold mine. They are not going to improve the land; they are happy to let the deteriorated gold mines sit there."

All of these issues are urban design issues, and don’t get your hackles raised by Hillier’s terming Princeton as "urban" or a "city," because he insists those terms are positive. But when Hillier addressed the Princeton Chamber last summer on the topic "Princeton: the best little city in the world," people in the audience did take umbrage at his using the word city.

Insists Hillier: "Everything that you design in Princeton itself is very much of an urban design issue." Princeton qualifies as a city, he says, because it has – and he ticks them off – a theater, a museum, healthcare, good restaurants, a vital downtown – and is a "great walkable town."

No matter what everyone might like to think, Princeton is not "a nice little village," he claims. "I was trying to say ‘Wake up! You are really a city, the best little city in the world.’ And I gave the university tons of credit because they provide much of that. The borough zoning board is open minded and flexible, and they negotiate for the betterment of the town." He wishes the zoning code itself matched the flexibility of the zoning board.

Hillier had started tinkering with the borough’s zoning code 30 years ago, when he created a private street, Willow Street (just off Moore), and built two-story contemporary homes. "It is just a wonderful little street, one block off Nassau, with really cool places to live," he says. "Over 30 years they have held up stylistically, and because they were built out of brick, have held up materially. But we always had the problem that the view out the window was the auto repair shop."

He says jokingly that he felt he owed it to the original buyers to take South’s Garage and make it into professional apartments, with the new address, 36 Moore Street. "It is meeting different demands and is doing very well."

An earlier project, One Markham, is now a perfectly respectable apartment building, but 25 years ago it was a concrete eyesore, half-finished because the builder had locked horns with the building inspector, who declared it unsafe. "Almost in fun, the builder wrapped it in plywood painted bright yellow, the color of police tape. I bought it at a sheriff sale," says Hillier. He got the zoning changed from offices to a three-story condo building, with a tile facade, and parking in the basement. "We had 200 people from the neighborhood come to the zoning board to cheer us on," he says.

Another late 1970s project, Markham Square, had been the residence of Princeton University’s president James McCosh, but among the modest homes near Harrison Street, it looked more like a white elephant – too much house for the neighborhood. "The cost of repairing and restoring that house on that piece of land was such that no one would buy it, because that kind of money would buy a house on Library Place," says Hillier. He moved the house, restored the facade to look like the original McKim White drawings, and divided it into two condos.

Then he asked the zoning board to let him put 12 garden townhouses – three levels, with two-story living rooms – in the rear. One of those three-bedroom townhouses, built in 1980, is currently under contract. It listed at $479,000, plus a $410 monthly condo fee. Taxes are $6,754.

For families trying to buy an older house in the environs of Princeton, Hillier offers these guidelines:

Cellar and roof. "The absolute no no is any kind of leak or dampness. Mold is a serious issue."

Engineering. "Does the house have good bones, meaning, is it built well? When you jump on the floor, are you on a trampoline, or do you almost break your legs?"

Kitchen. "Don’t even look at the kitchen of an older house." You are going to want a new kitchen, and you will have to spend $50,000 for it, so factor that into your budget.

Bathrooms. "Can you enlarge the bathrooms? Old kitchens are generally big enough, but not bathrooms. This is what kills all the old houses, which have bathrooms that 5 by 8 feet, when people are looking for at least 2 1/2 times that size."

Much of the affordable housing stock in Jugtown (around Markham Place) and around Princeton Shopping Center is Cape Cod style. "Unfortunately a Cape doesn’t work that well for many people who want to live in Princeton. People need more space."

What about just tearing down the Cape Cod, and building a larger house from scratch? "You need to be careful about building too many big houses too close to each other," he says. "But in some cases the house ought to come down. I would approve in some places and abhor it in others."

Enlarging an existing Cape presents two economic difficulties. "Craft, as we know carpenters, has disappeared," he explains. "There are lots of talented carpenters, but they make better money in production mode than in a craft mode. It is more economically efficient to tear a house down and build a new one than it is to fuss with it."

Second, it is easier to build a great big box than to build a group of connected little boxes, he says. "I could double a Cape Cod in size by adding some nice wings with lots of complicated roof angles and dormers and make it charming as all get-out, but it would be more expensive to build. You wouldn’t get one more dime on the market than with a great big box."

"The Cape Cod was developed because it was a box," he explains. "The way to expand it is to make other boxes of the same kind of scale. It is much more expensive than to do one big box."

Medium-sized new houses are scarce, because developers build as big as the lot allows. On average, houses are built for $100 a foot and sell for around $300 a foot, he says. "If I can deliver a 4,000 square foot house instead of a 3,000 square foot house on the same land, guess what?" More square footage spread over the same land cost means an extra $200,000 in the builder’s pocket.

Hillier says he doesn’t think social policy can be mandated by zoning, but he has some very original ideas for senior housing that would could require some zoning changes. "The way you make affordable housing for seniors is not to build a big wooden dormitory on 20 acres, but to put a house for seniors on every block." He has been working with Community Without Walls, the senior citizen group, on this idea.

"You let developers tear down a house and put in six units of senior housing, which would allow you to exceed the zoning code by 20 percent. Closer to town, you could take two houses in one block, farther away, one house in every two blocks. The seniors would be next to families rather than being in their own ghetto."

How it works: Tear down a Cape Cod, build 4,000 feet and put in six one-bedroom apartments. The density is the same as with a family with four children. "The six seniors have the privilege of looking after each other and they are living next door to a house with two kids. But you would have to incentivize the developer and give them a bonus. I have been trying to find a lot to do a demonstration."

Does anybody have a lot – or an aging Cape Cod – that would suffice? You could own the first example of Hillier’s innovative plan for senior housing.

Hillier, 500 Alexander Park, Princeton 08543-0023. 609-452-8888; fax, 609-452-8332.

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