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.(Photo by E.J. Greenblat)

THE ARTS COUNCIL LOBBYS FOR CHANGE: It was standing-room-only at the Princeton Regional Planning Board hearing of the proposed expansion of the Arts Council building. The meeting was adjourned after midnight without a final vote on the application. The Arts Council later released plans that reduce the expansion by 21.4 percent. The next meeting, which will include a public hearing, is scheduled for June 17.

Arts Council Reduces Proposed Expansion

Matthew Hersh

In a move apparently bowing to pressure from the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association and others, the Arts Council of Princeton has released a scaled-down version of expansion plans.

The plan was released by Arts Council architect Michael Graves & Associates four days following an appearance before the Princeton Regional Planning Board last week. The new plans indicate the proposed building area has been reduced to 16,760 square-feet, a size that is 2,190 square-feet smaller than the those initially submitted to the Planning Board in February. The planned increase now represents about a 60 percent expansion.

In a memo to Planning Director Lee Solow, architect Thomas Rowe said the reduction was accomplished by removing a three-floor addition and staircase on the east side of the bulding along Witherspoon Street.

Mr. Rowe said the changes reflect recommendations made by the neighborhood association that called for restoring and retaining the facade of the original building, reducing the net square-footage expansion by 25 percent, and reconfiguring interior plans to promote spatial conservation.

A neighborhood survey conducted by WJNA called for "at least" a 25-percent reduction. However, in an open letter to the community last week, the Arts Council said reducing the building by 4,787 square feet, or 25 percent, would "severely impair [the oraganization's] functioning to the point where [it] would have to go elsewhere."

Nevertheless, the latest plans call for a 21.4 percent reduction in size.

The building will also retain its name in honor of the renowned actor and Green Street resident, Paul Robeson. Previously, the Arts Council had intended to use the name Dean Mathey, whose estate is providing major funding for the project.

A Paul Robeson monument that had once been placed off to the side of the building has been moved in the plans to a location at the central entrance at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place.

Proposed lot coverage on the site has also be scaled down to 5,817 square feet, from 6,585 square feet, according to Mr. Rowe's memo.

A previous expansion application reviewed by the Planning Board called for the construction of a 9,030-square-foot addition to the original 9,900-square-foot Paul Robeson Building, resulting in a structure 18,930 square-feet in size.

At last week's meeting, a final decision regarding the outcome of the expansion project was postponed when the Arts Council's testimony, that included layout, design, and traffic circulation issues, extended into the morning hours.

A continuation date, set for June 17, will include a public hearing.

"We really believe that what we have done is a good thing for the whole community. It's not something we're trying to force on people," Wendy Mager, the Arts Council's board president-elect, said of the revised plan. "We don't think [an expansion] will be a substantial detriment [and] we think we have a good plan."

However, members of WJNA and Princeton Future, the community group that has mediated discussions between the Arts Council and members of the neighborhood, remains dissatisfied with the process that has led to the Arts Council's latest plans, citing a lack of inclusiveness.

"There are still impacts that need to be worked out together and our hope is that [the Arts Council and WJNA] can meet at least twice again before the June 17 Planning Board meeting," said Princeton Future co-chair Sheldon Sturges, adding that the Arts Council's new design should have been made available to the neighborhood earlier than it was.

However, Dana Hughes, Green Street resident and program director of Princeton Young Achievers, said she supports the expansion of the Arts Council's facilities and services and would not want to see the organization relocated.

"I understand there are true concerns about parking, green space, and building size," she said. "However, 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."

"When we talk about the future of this community, I cannot see it without the Arts Council," she added.

But Jim Floyd, president of WJNA, said there had not been enough community outreach in the process. Mr. Floyd cited testimony presented to the Planning Board to illustrate his thoughts, including that of architect Tom Rowe.

Mr. Rowe referred to the John-Witherspoon neighborhood as one "in transition." Mr. Floyd said he wonders how that distinction was determined.

"The 'neighborhood-in-transition' started with [the building of] Palmer Square," Mr. Floyd said, referring to the 1937 construction of the outdoor shopping square that resulted in the razing of Baker Street and part of John Street. "It continued with the destruction of Jackson Street, and you end up 'transitioning' everything in the neighborhood for the use and benefit of folk outside of the neighborhood," he said.

"Take away, denegrate, and then you have more reason to come along and further denegrate," Mr. Floyd said.

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