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The Arts Council Moves Closer to Expansion

Matthew Hersh

The Arts Council of Princeton has moved closer to fulfilling a renovation and expansion project that has ignited passionate convictions from both supporters and opponents of the plan.

The Site Plan Review Advisory Board recommended Thursday to the Princeton Regional Planning Board plans that would drastically alter the intersection of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place and bring new life to the Paul Robeson Building.

Opponents of the plan have argued that an expanded Arts Council combined with the new library will only exacerbate the "urban intersection" of Paul Robeson Place and Witherspoon Street. Dissenting residents have also charged that a new facility would have adverse effects on the John-Witherspoon neighborhood.

The plan was approved four to one, with Board member and John-Witherspoon neighborhood resident Ricardo Bruce dissenting.

Mr. Bruce argued the political tactic, asking Arts Council board member Peter Bienstock why the facility needs "100 percent more space," when, he contended, Arts Council services were to increase only by 20 percent.

The proposal, which will most likely be subjected to minor changes before appearing before the Planning Board in April, includes various interior renovations and a 9,250 square-foot addition to the existing building, bringing the total square-footage to 19,150 from 9,900 square feet. This new size is down from the 19,700 square-foot plan rejected by the Planning Board in 2000. A second theater was included in those previous plans.

Other elements of the proposal include: a new main gallery, two visiting artist studios, a children's' studio, and photography and graphic arts spaces.

While the meeting was open to the public, SPRAB meetings do not have public hearings. Approximately 40 residents who attended the meeting were advised to reserve grievances until a formal application appears before the Planning Board this spring. SPRAB member Louise Schiller said the focus of the meeting was limited to the safety and practicality of the structure and usage of the building.

However, in a somewhat unorthodox move, the Board allowed former Attorney General and Township resident Nicholas Katzenbach to speak on behalf of Princeton Future, the non-profit, community-planning organization. Princeton Future is working with both residents of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood and the Arts Council to arrive at a consensus on the expansion.

"We believe that more understanding of both sides has been achieved, and that with further discussion, some agreed resolutions of those concerns is possible, but by no means certain," Mr. Katzenbach said.

"Accordingly, we believe that we will have the opportunity to continue those discussions before any final recommendations are made," he added.

Mr. Bienstock responded saying that inevitable maneuvers needed to bring the building up to code had led to the expansion proposal, and that the Arts Council needs individualized spaces to address the various programs it offers. He added that the Arts Council would also entertain ideas to rent unused space in the building for nonprofit organizations or for cultural events.

The Advisory Board's Ms. Schiller suggested the building be re-named the "Paul Robeson Center for the Arts," in honor of the Princeton native, emphasizing that the name represents a significant aspect of the history of the neighborhood. She also recommended that a Robeson monument outlined in the original plans be positioned in a more prominent area.

The working name of the proposed building currently honors Dean Mathey, a major donor to the project.

Anne Reeves, executive director of the Arts Council, said a permanent exhibit would be assembled to illustrate the history of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood.

Ultimately, Ms. Reeves expressed her approval of SPRAB's recommendations.

"We were very pleased," she said. "Most of [SPRAB's] suggestions made good sense, were thoughtful, possible, and our architect walked away thinking things were very doable."

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