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Arts Council to Expand; Residents Weigh Impact

Matthew Hersh

The approval to build a 16,740-square-foot, Michael Graves-designed building on the current site of the Arts Council on 102 Witherspoon Street was handed down by the Princeton Regional Planning Board last Thursday, and with it came the end of another chapter in the Arts Council's often troubled relationship with the neighborhood that surrounds the building.

The new structure will be named the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, to honor the Princeton actor, athlete, activist, and one-time Green Street resident.

An outpouring of residents, both for and against expansion attended the standing-room-only meeting that lasted until midnight. The meeting was an extension of the original May 20 Planning Board forum where architecture and traffic-study testimony was heard. Thursday's meeting included only the public hearing element.

Residents from as far as Trenton came to voice their opinions on the facility that serves as Princeton's main cultural institution.

While the Arts Council is widely regarded as a benefit to the community, the focus of the battle, which was to hold expansion at bay, stemmed from what some residents say is a trend that has checkered the past of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.

The Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA), which led the opposition to the Arts Council's plans, argued that the process was largely conducted without regard for the history of the neighborhood.

As a fourth-generation Witherspoon-Jackson resident, Shirley Satterfield of Quarry Street, said that while she "respects the presence" of the Arts Council in the Paul Robeson Building, and while the Arts Council has agreed to a 21.4 percent reduction in original expansion plans, she feels the history of the neighborhood will be absorbed into the desire to build and expand on the downtown property.

"This history should be required information for all interested buyers in a community that is now prime property for realtors, architects, investors, landlords, and developers."

A free black community dates back to the 1700s in Princeton, and a large portion of that population originally settled in the neighborhood between Jackson Street, now Paul Robeson Place, and Birch Avenue. The community went on to be home to Italian residents, who came to Princeton largely from Pettoranello, Italy to be stonecutters employed at Princeton University.

However, residents say the Arts Council's approval for expansion reflects a trend within the neighborhood since the onset of Edgar Palmer's vision to construct a town center in 1929. Palmer Square, which was completed in 1937, saw the razing of Baker Street, which extended up to Nassau Street. Many of those houses were moved to Birch Avenue.

"The concept of urban renewal had begun," Ms. Satterfield said.

John Street resident Albert Hinds, who was a construction worker involved in the Squares building, said many residents in the neighborhood did not know how to respond to the Square's overall effect on the community.

"I think a lot of people were caught off guard," said Mr. Hinds, who is 102, "a lot of people didn't know what was happening."

While not overt, WJNA president James Floyd said the pattern of urban renewal in the community holds foundations in Princeton's segregated past and has said that expansion of any kind represents the "denigration" of the neighborhood.

"We are concerned that the number of variances requested [by the Arts Council] would never, never, never, be extended in any other neighborhood. This is a fragile neighborhood, a diminishing neighborhood, and we must protect residential neighborhoods."

Those in the neighborhood like Mr. Hinds, Ms. Satterfield, and Mr. Floyd, have not contended that the Arts Council itself will hurt the community, but they worry that the zoning variances, and erecting the Graves building that will follow, will set a precedent for building and expanding on the coveted "prime property."

"We're still fighting, one way or the other, what we were fighting 75 years ago," Mr. Hinds said.

Residents in Favor

While a recent WJNA survey indicated that over 90 percent of 181 Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood residents polled feel that there should be zoning restrictions placed on any new construction at 102 Witherspoon, including maintaining existing setbacks, many residents voiced their approval of the then-proposed expansion, saying it would facilitate better programming for the institution.

Dana Hughes, a resident of neighboring Green Street who also sits on the Arts Council board, said she grew up using the facility and its programming and favored "anything" for the Arts Council to better serve Princeton. Ms. Hughes is also assistant director of Princeton Young Achievers.

"If it makes a difference for the kids, then I support it. If it helps the children and helps the community then I support it." Ms. Hughes said. "I don't think that any of those things can't be worked out to the point where we would want to take this resource away from this community."

Connie Campbell, who also holds a seat on the Arts Council Board, agreed. The Leigh Avenue resident said the community will benefit from an expanded Arts Council.

Ms. Campbell also said that the Arts Council did make efforts to work with the community, despite the claims of detractors.

"I don't know how many meetings we held for people to come in, see the plans, and talk about this," she said. "This isn't anything new, and there are too many people involved on that board to not come up with [outreach]."

Ms. Campbell, who used to use the Paul Robeson Building when it served as the "Black Y," said that while she recognizes the history of urban renewal and the community's segregated past, a new facility will be beneficial.

"I wasn't in love with the original plans for the new Arts Council building either," she said. But she felt the organization did its part in working with the community.

"It's not what the building is going to look like, it's what's going to be inside."

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