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Vol. LXV, No. 49
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
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Institute and Preservationists Continue Fight

Anne Levin

Round Two of the battle between the Institute for Advanced Study and the Princeton Battlefield Society over the Institute’s proposed faculty housing project is set for the meeting of the Regional Planning Board on Thursday, December 8. More than 150 people attended last week’s nearly four-hour hearing on the project, causing the planners to carry the discussion over to its session this week.

After sworn testimony, cross-examination by attorneys of Township staff, and a presentation on the first phase of the project by architect Robert Hillier (a shareholder of Town Topics), there was time only for comments from members of the public who will not be able to return for this week’s meeting. Several individuals, from both sides of the controversial plan, expressed an interest in airing their views.

The site in question is about 350 feet from the Battlefield State Park. While preservationists contend that it is “hallowed ground” that should not be disturbed, a representative of Princeton’s Historic Preservation Commission testified Thursday that the project would have no adverse impact on the park. She recommended that construction be halted should any military artifacts be found during construction. In his presentation, Mr. Hillier said a metal detector survey would be carried out prior to construction, and any artifacts found would be marked and turned over to the New Jersey State Museum. On-site archaeologists would be on hand while basements are dug, he added.

The project was first proposed to the Planning Board in 2003, but was rejected because of problems with its buffer zone. Preservationists have opposed construction at the Battlefield since the Institute first considered building faculty housing there in the 1970s. Both the Institute and the Battlefield Society have commissioned studies on the site. The land is owned by the Institute.

The Institute’s plan for eight townhouses and seven single family homes is an effort to create “a true academic village,” Institute Director Peter Goddard told the planners in his presentation to the planners. The cul de sac complex would provide affordable housing opportunities for faculty members, most of whom are out-priced by the surrounding neighborhood of Springdale Road and Mercer Street.

Having resident and visiting faculty in walking distance to the campus is essential to its mission, Mr. Goddard said, as a “community of scholars.” Visiting faculty of the Institute are accommodated in an existing housing complex designed in 1957 by architect Marcel Breuer, whose style Mr. Hillier made reference to in his presentation on the eight townhouses. Mr. Hillier said the project would be separated from Battlefield Park by the planting of more than 270 trees, and would not affect the view there.

The flat-roofed townhouses, which would have a courtyard, would range in size from about 3,900 to 6,600 square feet. Only Institute faculty members can buy the units, but they would be sold back to the Institute if the faculty member leaves.

Representing the Princeton Battlefield Area Preservation Society and several area residents, Princeton attorney Bruce Afran spoke several times during the meeting and closely questioned Princeton’s historic preservation and zoning officers. He will speak further on opposition to the project at this week’s meeting.

During the limited time left for public comment, several residents who live near the Institute spoke in favor of the project and praised the Institute as a good neighbor. Resident Peter Bienstock suggested that there are many ways to honor the Battlefield’s history, and that those who fought there in the American Revolution would see the achievements of the Institute as a realization of their vision. “It’s time to realize that these needs of this wonderful neighbor of ours are real and immediate,” he said

Institute faculty member Helmut Hoffer said finding affordable and convenient housing is difficult, and that living close to the campus is key to their work. The campus is “a tight knit community of world leading faculty. It is not a 9 to 5 job,” he said. “The level of the institute is a higher level. New ideas come from interactions with peers and the activity around you. Ideas don’t care about the time of the day. It could be at lunch, in the bathtub, at a planning board meeting.”

Resident Paul Loane praised the Institute but said it should build the housing project elsewhere on their grounds. “They deserve housing on the many acres they have, but not here,” he said. “This is a bad idea. One thing you haven’t heard much about is the history. Looking at this project and not talking about the history is like having an aquarium with no water.”

The discussion will continue at the December 8 meeting of the Planning Board in the main meeting room of the Princeton Township Municipal Complex, starting at 7:30 p.m.

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