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Vol. LXIV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
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Planning Board Approves New Library; Seminary to Tear Down Speer Building

Dilshanie Perera

After 18 months of debate, discussion, and revision, the Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) obtained unanimous approval from the Regional Planning Board for the demolition of the existing Speer Library on Mercer Street and Library Place and permission to build a new library structure on that site.

Vice Chair of the Borough’s Historic Preservation Review Committee (HPRC) Jean Perantoni explained that the process had been lengthy because this is a precedent-setting case and because it is the “first demolition of a contributing building in a historic district in Princeton,” which has implications “for New Jersey and the nation at large.”

Noting that the current design and concept has the full approval of the HPRC, particularly since the seminary had exhausted all possibilities of building renovation and proved adequate hardship, Ms. Perantoni explained that “elements of the design did change over the course of the project, and a better design was brought forth.”

Attorney Anne Reichelderfer, representing the seminary, pointed out that during the course of the design process, the institution had made changes and refined its vision based on community input. “The building is set back further from Mercer Street, and without the windowless book box.”

An 1843 deed restriction on the land apportions the seminary’s use of the area that Speer Library occupies specifically for a library “and for other purposes only if the entire lot is not needed for the library,” Ms. Reichelderfer said, pointing out that the State recently assessed Speer Library, which was built in 1956, as a non-contributing building in the historic district.

John Gilmore, Senior Vice President for the Theological Seminary, noted that the goals of the proposed development are to “have a world-class library facility open to the public, and create a sustainable facility that is respectful of the environment and economical to operate.”

“Speer cannot be reused. The seminary cannot afford — in terms of dollars and land — to repurpose Speer and build a new library,” Mr. Gilmore said.

Seminary President Iain Torrance observed that the institution houses “the largest theological library in the world after the Vatican.”

“We owe it to the community and the world to make our library more accessible, and share our texts electronically …. For us, this project is a living act of faithfulness to a long tradition of learning,” Mr. Torrance added.

With just over 500,000 paper volumes in its current collection, the PTS library acquires between 10,000 and 15,000 texts during the course of a year, said seminary Library Steve Crocco. The proposed building will be able to fit a capacity of a million books.

Design Architect David Fixler from the firm Einhorn Yaffe Prescott explained that a rigorous look at Speer had been undertaken during the first years of considering the options for renovating the library. Elaborating on the shortcomings, he called attention to the inadequate structural capacity, the need for extensive bracing, and some maneuvering between the connections between Speer and Luce libraries, whose floors are not at the same height.

What he is proposing instead is a “21st century, contemporary building that is a logical extension … something appropriate” for the surrounding landscape. The new building will be set back 105 feet from Mercer Street, whereas the current building is set back 62 feet.

All pedestrian pathways in the area will be ADA-accessible, 233 parking spaces are proposed, and 42 of the 135 trees on site will be removed. The overall increase in impervious surface coverage is 0.1 of an acre. Landscaping will be extensive, and involves a phased plan for shade tree longevity, as well as strategic placement of trees and shrubbery to shield parking lots from roadside views and vice versa.

The roofs on the new library will be made of prepatinated copper, which will already be imbued with a blueish-green color. The material is said to mitigate staining.

Members of the public and members of the Princeton Theological Seminary all spoke in favor of the proposed site plan and building design, with many acknowledging the institution’s superb collection, as well as the need for a newer, more inspiring space in which to conduct work and facilitate the use the materials, lending it better access for scholars, the community, and people around the world.

“How refreshing it is to see so much support for an application,” said Planning Board member Peter Madison before the final vote.

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