Arts Council Plans to Lobby for Expansion Despite Differences With Community Groups
Despite calls to put off its building application, the Arts Council is set to appear before the Princeton Regional Planning Board Thursday night with plans that would bring the total square-footage of the Paul Robeson Building to 19,150, from 9,900 square feet.
The Arts Council is poised to proceed through the remainder of the planning process even though the cultural institution has been under pressure from both Princeton Future and the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA) to reconsider the extent of its expansion and renovation plan for the building located at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place.
Organized by members of the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood, WJNA mobilized to work with the Arts Council to provide neighborhood input on the project. Princeton Future, which has been moderating discussions between representatives of the two groups, is a community-based organization focused on downtown development.
WJNA brought Princeton architect Joanna Kendig on board to design a plan that reduced the proposed expansion by 25 percent. The Arts Council rejected the architect's revision, maintaining that the nearly 100 percent increase in size is needed not only to bring the 64-year-old building up to code, but also to accommodate an increase in programming, events, and services.
Arts Council representatives also say that much of the space will be used to add restrooms and comply with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, including handicapped access.
Wendy Mager, board president of the Arts Council, said that all neighborhood concerns were addressed and considered in moving forward with the application. However, both Princeton Future and WJNA contend that several neighborhood concerns have yet to be addressed.
"Both Princeton Future and the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood are distressed that the conversation stopped before useful discussion of the building occurred," said Susan Hockaday, Yina Moore, and Nicholas Katzenbach of the Princeton Future Steering Committee. "We thought that the Arts Council, by taking the time to understand problems and desires, was well on its way to healing feelings of bitterness in the neighborhood." Princeton Future published its comments in an open letter that appears in newspapers today.
The Arts Council contends in an open letter, however, that there has been a "long process of outreach to the community and thinking about [the] mission and needs" of the facility.
"We believe the plan, in its current form, deserves Planning Board approval and would benefit the entire community without having substantial negative impacts on the immediate neighborhood," the letter went on to say.
Meanwhile, the WJNA conducted a survey of 181 neighborhood residents last month, asking how the Arts Council can improve its facility with less expansion. The survey addressed various zoning restrictions, parking and traffic impacts, drop-off issues, the preservation of history, and "being a good neighbor."
Some of the suggestions provided by the neighborhood group were that the height of a new building not exceed the existing structure's 3-story addition; that the proposed 19,150 square-foot structure be reduced by 25 percent; and that the creation of a permanent Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood exhibit be included in the facility.
Arts Council representatives said that WJNA's recommendations would be considered, so long that they do not "impair the Arts Council to carry out its mission." As a result of that consideration, the Arts Council pulled out of an originally-scheduled appearance before the Planning Board on April 15.
Last week, the Arts Council announced that it had responded favorably to several of WJNA's requests including: controlling access to parking at the rear of the building by installing a gate that closes at 6 p.m.; creating an exit-only door to Green Street; and keeping disturbances from garbage removal to a minimum by having all loading and deliveries occur from the Paul Robeson Place side of the building.
While the Arts Council said it will continue to plan for a 3-story structure, as WJNA had requested, it could not accept the request to reduce its expansion by 25 percent.
"While we cannot ... do everything that is listed [on the WJNA survey], we are studying the feasibility of making additional changes that will allow us adequately to fulfill our mission," the Arts Council letter said. "To reduce the square-footage of the building by at least 4,787 square feet would severely impair our functioning to the point where we would have to go elsewhere."
Thursday night's Planning Board meeting will include a public hearing as part of the Board's consideration for the application.
The Arts Council's current plan for expansion is down 550 square-feet from the original 19,700-square-foot plan that was rejected by the Planning Board in 2000 by one vote. Those plans included a 200-seat theater, since scrapped, in addition to a new main gallery, two visiting artist studios, a children's studio, and photography and graphic arts spaces.
Last May, the Planning Board heard a non-binding concept view that allowed the Arts Council to get feedback from both the Board and residents prior to submitting a formal application. At that time, Board members said that the Arts Council needed to address the issues of size, traffic, and neighborhood preservation.
In March of this year, the Site Plan Review Advisory Board okayed the Arts Council's revised plan to appear before the Planning Board.