February 27, 2013

Westminster Plans Campus Improvements Including New Rehearsal Space for Choir

The Westminster Symphonic Choir performs with orchestras from across the globe, led by internationally acclaimed conductors. But the 220-member choral ensemble, among the jewels of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, rehearses in a cramped space known as The Playhouse, with less-than-ideal acoustics.

Thanks to an expansion plan projected to begin in July, the Choir and other students at Westminster’s Princeton campus will soon be preparing for performances in a newly renovated and constructed facility. Officials from Westminster and Rider described the proposal during a courtesy review by the Planning Board at its meeting last Thursday, February 21.

In addition to a renovation of the Playhouse, the plan for the 18.75-acre Princeton campus includes a new academic building, a general services building, some reconfigured parking, new walkways, landscaping, and lighting. Officials hope to have the improvements completed in time for the fall semester of 2014.

“The last new building on campus was the student center in 1975,” Westminster Dean Robert Annis told the Board. Mr. Annis assured the Board that enrollment will be maintained at 450 students. “We are not increasing the size of our student body or faculty. We do not intend to increase the number of recitals.”

Three classrooms and a rehearsal room with “an appropriate acoustical environment” and enough seating for the Symphonic Choir are part of the plan, Mr. Annis continued. The new building will connect in an L-shape with the Playhouse. There will be more room for student recitals. Currently, most performances are held in Bristol Chapel and in the space at Williamson Hall that was intended as a student lounge. Once the new building is constructed, “we can turn Williamson Lounge back into a true lounge for students,” Mr. Annis said.

Architect Michael Shatken of KSS Architects said the new construction will take its design cue from the existing campus. “Williamson Hall heavily influenced how the new buildings will look,” he said, praising the “Georgian quadrangle and wonderful campus plan.”

The new, 11,980-square-foot building’s portico will be modeled after that of Williamson Hall, but the new hall will allow in more natural light. The renovated Playhouse will include such architectural improvements as a small vestibule with an overhead trellis that parallels the design of the walkways. The new general services building will replace two existing buildings on the campus.

Planning Board member Jenny Crumiller asked how sustainability would be addressed. Mr. Shatken said that LEED Silver status would be pursued, and that lighting systems and mechanical systems would be very energy efficient.

Westminster does not require approval for the expansion project, because the site in question sits more than 150 feet from a public zone and the municipality has no jurisdiction. Once building permits are obtained, construction on the project can begin.

The college received approval three years ago to expand and improve its parking lot, which has been done. Last June, the first draft of its master plan was presented to the Planning Board. The school met with neighbors last December before filing its current submission.

Only one neighbor, Ken Fields of Linden Lane, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. His sole issue was excessively bright lighting from two fixtures, which Westminster officials had already agreed to address. ”Myself and my neighbors want the Choir College to succeed, and are in favor of the master plan,” he said. “We did not want a fence, but now that the parking lot is done, perhaps it’s okay.”

Gail Ullman, who chairs the Planning Board, told Westminster representatives that she was originally dismayed at what appeared to be poor communication between the school and its residential neighbors when the project was first proposed.

“But with only one person here to comment, it seems to be okay now,” she said. “I would like to congratulate you on that.”