Bob Powell’s new home is so close to the Garden Theater that he can smell the popcorn. He and his wife, psychologist Sharon Powell, traded 5,000 square feet of country club living a few miles outside of town for a 2,000-square-foot condo inches from Nassau Street.
The condo is one of four units that Powell created in an historic gray clapboard building with a generous porch. Powell is a real estate developer whose projects include the Cherry Valley Country Club community and the Spring Street garage and Witherspoon House apartments adjacent to the Princeton Public Library.
“The project took three years,” says Powell of his new home. “Eighteen months of site planning and 18 months of building. It turned out to be somewhat more complicated than I envisioned. I should have known better.”
With the struggle largely over, except for a noise issue involving the Garden Theater’s enormous air conditioning units abutting his patio, Powell is delighted with his new home.
“Our strong view is that Princeton is changing every year, becoming more diverse, more vibrant. We wanted to be right in town. We thought that even half-a-mile out was not the same,” he says.
So, through 2009 and 2010, Powell and his wife looked for a downtown house to buy. “We were disappointed with the quality of the space,” he says. “We saw 70-year-old half-houses with three bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, outdated kitchens, lack of storage space, no parking.”
At the same time, the Powells had long owned a small 1830s Greek Revival style office building in a prime Princeton location. The building, Stonerose Hall, had originally been a single family house. In 1872, its owner, Jacob Lane, a steward of the Princeton Theological Seminary, sold it to Princeton University, which moved the house to its present location on Vandeventer Avenue in 1877 and converted it into an undergraduate dorm called Parker Hall Dormitory. Sold to a James Smith in the early part of the 20th century, the house had long been divided into apartments and offices when Powell, along with partners, bought it in 1983.
Sharon Powell set up a psychology practice in the building and later established the Princeton Center for Leadership Training there. When she retired as president of the organization in 2010, it moved to another space at 911 Commons Way.
At that point, the Powells were sole owners of Stonerose Hall, and they began to think about turning it back into a residential building with five condominiums, including their much wished for downtown home.
Powell, who is a principal in Princeton-based Nassau Capital Advisors, a real estate brokerage and development consulting firm, hired John Hatch of Trenton’s Clarke Caton Hintz to draw up the plans.
“Hatch has done a lot of historic renovation,” says Powell. “He did Morven. He did the Cracker Factory in Trenton, turning an old industrial building into condos. He had a great sense of how it should happen, and the Princeton zoning folks are comfortable with him.”
Still, a roadblock came up right away, during the first meeting with the Princeton zoning board. Powell’s building is in a residential zone but had been grandfathered as an office building because it had functioned as such since before Princeton had a zoning board. Still, Powell said, to return it to its original use as a residence, Stonerose Hall needed a variance.
As he presented the plans to the zoning board, Powell says, “I could tell I didn’t have the votes. I could see the way it was going.” The sticking point, he saw, was that his plan slightly enlarged the building, expanding the third floor enough that a fifth unit could be added.
“The plan did not change the building’s footprint at all,” he says. “People passing on the street would never be able to see a difference. The whole appearance would have been identical.
“It seemed unreasonable, counterintuitive” for the board to balk at the space needed for a fifth unit, he says. “They’re saying they don’t want more investment. I thought they should be encouraging us to go bigger. It makes sense to take an underutilized building and add it to the town’s tax base, which is not growing quickly.”
Powell says that he is in favor of at least slightly more dense housing options in Princeton, “particularly in the central business district” where there is such great demand.
The town is not even close to being ready for high rises, he says, but he would like to see five-story buildings, with retail on the ground floor and condos or apartments above. But, after receiving push-back on his plan to add a small amount of space to his existing building, he said he is aware that it’s hard to fight a strong aversion to change.
He has run into this aversion not only in Princeton, but also in towns where he has worked to develop new downtown housing, generally as a public-private partnership. “We worked on a plan to bring four-story housing to a two-acre surface parking lot in Westfield,” he says. But a number of long-time residents were appalled. He quotes opponents as saying “we love that parking lot!”
“There wasn’t a tree, a blade of grass,” he says. “How do you love a parking lot?” But love it they did and “a four-story building was freaking them out.” That was the end of the proposed redevelopment.
With fights like this in mind, Powell immediately decided that he did not want the grief and delay that comes with fighting city hall, or in this case, the planning board. “We weren’t going to spend our life fighting,” he says. “I asked that they put off the vote for 60 days so that we could come back with plan B.”
Plan B, a four-unit condominium project with all renovation taking place in the existing space, was approved, but it was another year of “negotiating and applications” to get all the necessary paperwork in order before construction could begin.
This drawn-out process in not unique to Princeton by any means, says Powell, who has worked on residential projects in a number of other New Jersey towns and found similar hurdles in place. While the soft-spoken southerner doesn’t rail at the land use boards, he does point out that the lengthy development application process contributes to high housing prices throughout New Jersey and has caused many a would-be developer to give up and walk away.
“The barrier for entry is very high,” says Powell. “It screens out a lot of worthy projects and makes New Jersey less competitive than other parts of the country.”
In fact, after the first meeting with the zoning board, Powell himself, a seasoned professional developer, was tempted to give up. “The response of the zoning board was so petty,” he says. “Why do they care if we add another 800-square feet? Nobody would know the difference.
“I wondered, is this a sign of things to come? But my wife said ‘let’s just go through the steps.’” The thing that propelled the couple forward, says Powell, was the certainty that “the land is just so bloody valuable.” Stonerose Hall sits on a prime example of the hottest incarnation of location, location, location in the early 21st century.
“It’s 100 feet from Nassau Street; it’s one-and-a-half blocks from the library,” says Powell, ticking off the site’s attractions. “It’s steps from dozens of restaurants, the university. It’s within walking distance of the train.”
This prime confluence is now a powerful magnet for young professionals and empty nesters alike. Powell, who is working on a number of multi-family projects in New Jersey towns that offer these advantages, is aware of just how rare and precious they are. Knowing that he owned a building, albeit old and in need of work, on one of the best lots in the state, kept him going.
Plowing ahead, Powell hired Thomas C. Pinneo’s Princeton- based Pinneo Construction as his contractor. Pinneo, who holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Middlebury and an M.A. in Chinese languages from Stanford, has a specialty in historic renovations.
Powell maintained a hands-on presence with the subcontractors as the old building was taken down to its studs.
“We figured there would be surprises,” he says. “We knew from experience that when you take things apart and look under the hood, there are things you won’t know.” This was the case with Stonerose Hall. “The framing structure was inadequate,” he says. “The floors did not have adequate joist support. The whole framing of the third floor was way too fragile. We had to put in a heavy duty 35-foot header over the whole third floor ceiling. That was a $30,000 surprise.”
Powell was required to work with Princeton’s Historic Preservation Review Commission and found the experience pleasant. Among the commission’s requests was that he retain the original windows on the front of the house. He wasn’t sure how this could be done, but Pinneo knew a Hopewell craftsman who was able to remove all 15 windows and reseal and glaze them.
“They’re not modern windows, they’re not double glazed,” says Powell, but they are now snug enough and they retain their 19th century charm. Likewise, the home’s original fireplace mantels were restored and put back in place.
Decidedly modern details of the house, in addition to energy efficient cooling systems, a sprinkler system, and cutting edge appliances, include an elevator. Powell thought that the project, which includes one second-floor unit and two third-floor units, would appeal to many more potential buyers if he took the necessity of climbing stairs out of the equation. “It’s quite a climb to the third floor,” he says.
But the elevator he wanted fell in size between the fairly lax code requirements of the tiny elevators sometimes found in private homes and the public elevators in apartment houses and office buildings. Getting it approved was “kind of complicated,” he says. “It’s regulated by the state of New Jersey and we went through all sorts of negotiations with them.” It is a tale of supervisors overruling inspectors, inspectors being replaced by new inspectors, and lots of scrutiny of fire and safety codes.
In the end, the elevator, which added one month and $50,000 to the project and held up the certificate of occupancy, is, says Powell, “the safest elevator in Princeton.”
The Powells moved into their first floor, 2,000-square-foot condo in April. It has two bedrooms and a flex space that can be used as an office or a third bedroom. It is the empty nest space the Powells dreamed of. But it still has room for the return visits from their children and grandchildren.
Their daughter, Katherine Powell Roman, is an actor who lives in New York City with her husband and two children, two-year-old Sam and 10-month-old Gabriel. Katherine is now appearing in “Warriors,” an Off Broadway play. Her brother, Robert Powell, is a senior producer for NBC News. “He does investigative reports for the Today Show and for Dateline,” says his father.
The Powell family is firmly anchored on the East Coast, but Bob Powell and his wife met in his native North Carolina, where they both graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, Powell in 1967 and Sharon Powell in 1968. They then came to Princeton, where Powell received a Ph.D. from the Woodrow Wilson School and Sharon Powell earned an Ed.D. in counseling psychology from Rutgers.
Echoes of North Carolina fill their new Princeton condo. Powell’s late father, Robert Powell Sr., owned a “high end, custom furniture manufacturing business” in Thomasville, North Carolina, where Powell’s late mother, Dee Powell, was a stay-at-home mom turned successful real estate agent.
Powell’s brother still owns their father’s furniture business. “Ninety percent of the furniture in our home is from North Carolina,” says Powell. “All of our houses have been furnished with North Carolina furniture,” bought, he confided, at deep discount.
With his home complete and furnished, Powell is turning his attention to selling the other two market-price condos in his building. The fourth condo is an occupied 600-square-foot moderate income unit, which is being rented for $850 a month.
Towns frequently require the inclusion of affordable units in projects as a way of meeting their affordable housing mandates. When a developer seeks a substantial variance, says Powell, approval often comes with the stipulation the there be one or more affordable units.
The remaining condos are on the second and third floors. The second- floor condo, offered for sale at $1.27 million, is 2,200 square feet and contains two bedrooms and a flex room, along with two full baths.
The third floor unit is a 1,000 square foot loft with soaring ceilings and skylights. It is on the market for $625,000. Every unit includes parking spaces behind the house.
Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International is handling sale of the condos, says Powell, who has been surprised at the reach offered by Sotheby’s. “People are coming from all over to look at the condos,” he says. “At least 50 percent have been from out of the area.”
These potential buyers include a couple from China who have twice looked at the loft as a possible off campus space for their daughter, a Princeton University graduate who is just beginning a five-year fellowship at the university.
Powell, who was envisioning empty nesters as prime candidates for the second story condo, has also been surprised at the number of families with young children who have shown an interest. They include a couple now living in a suburban home just north of Princeton with two middle school age children.
Despite interest from families, Powell still thinks his nearest neighbors will probably turn out to be Boomer empty nesters. But he is finding that all types of buyers, in addition to clamoring for downtown locations, have a new mantra. “Smaller, simpler,” is how he sums it up.
And smaller and simpler is how he and his wife are living, tucked in right behind the Garden Theater with dozens of good pre-movie dinner choices just a short stroll away.
Nassau Capital Advisors LLC, 12 Vandeventer Avenue, Box 1475, Princeton 08542; 609-430-9700; fax, 609-430-9702. Robert S. Powell Jr., managing director. www.nassaucap.com.