June 11, 2014

IAS Housing Plans Go Before Princeton Planning Board, Again

IAS Amended PlanThe Institute for Advanced Study unveiled its amended plan for faculty housing to members of the press yesterday. The plans will be reviewed by the Princeton Planning Board next Thursday, June 17.

The amendment, made to original plans unanimously approved by the Planning Board in March 2012, became necessary when the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission (DRCC) objected in January to the use of land close to a stream.

The state regulatory agency voted 4 to 3 against the original plan, which had intended to use one-third of an acre of a 100 foot buffer along the waterway, and called for a modification that would avoid that one third acre.

The amended plan achieves this by reducing the overall footprint through small adjustments to several housing lot lines, all within previously approved boundaries. The original buffer line between the Institute and the Battlefield Park remains unchanged and the project continues to leave two-thirds of the site in public open space.

According to John Masten, the Institute’s associate director of finance and administration, “Cluster zoning allowed the Institute to amend its plan by creating slightly smaller lot sizes for single family homes.” The buffer zone between IAS housing and the Battlefield Park amounts to over 13 acres of land in a permanent easement.

“This land will be open and accessible to park visitors and the Institute is offering to create paths and put signage in place that will enhance the experience of the historic site,” said Mr. Masten.

With this amendment, the Institute believes that it has met all the subdivision requirements of the municipality and complied with DRCC requirements as well.

Institute Director Robbert Dijkgraaf expressed optimism that the plan would meet with approval at next week’s Planning Board meeting. “Mathematicians say that this [amended plan] is a strict subset of the original so it should pass just as the original did.”

Asked about objections from those who wish to preserve the land from development for historic reasons, Mr. Masten said that all of those considerations had been taken into account when the Princeton Planning Board looked at the original plans two years ago. At that time, the Planning Board undertook an extensive review over four days, he said.

The Princeton Battlefield Area Preservation Society, known for short as the Princeton Battlefield Society (PBS), has claimed that the Institute lacks sensitivity with respect to land where the Battle of Princeton was fought, likening its housing plans to Gettysburg College putting faculty housing at the scene of Pickett’s Charge.

PBS attorney Bruce Afran sued to overturn the Planning Board’s 2012 approval. But last June, Judge Mary Jacobson ruled against the suit, which prompted PBS to appeal her decision in Mercer County Superior Court in July.

In describing Ms. Jacobsen’s decision, Institute attorney Chris Tarr said at the time: “In all my 40 years, I have never heard a judge give such a careful, clear, and thoughtful review of her deliberation. The Princeton Planning Board decided this unanimously and since there were no variances, this was a simple case. Judge Jacobson had to decide whether the Planning Board acted reasonably or was their action ‘arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable’. After a thorough review she concluded that they acted reasonably.”

The IAS plan would cluster eight townhouses and seven single-family homes on a seven-acre parcel of land that sits between existing faculty homes and the Institute’s main campus. The buildings are designed to have a low profile and be screened from the Battlefield Park by trees. An additional 200-foot buffer zone alongside the Battlefield Park would be permanently preserved as open space.

The condominiums would be especially attractive to faculty emeriti wishing to downsize and the single family homes would be built as the need arises for new faculty, said Mr. Dijkgraaf, who described the faculty housing as crucial to the Institute’s residential nature as a community of scholars. “We take this aspect of the Institute very seriously,” he said, “it’s a magical ingredient that is key to the Institute’s success.”

The Institute draws some 200 residential visitors a year and has 27 permanent faculty and 20 faculty emeriti.

But rising costs of housing in Princeton have made it difficult for faculty to purchase homes in the area. Twenty years ago, 55 percent of faculty lived close by. Now, 11 out of 27 do so. It is becoming more difficult to maintain the Institute’s all-important residential character.

If approved, building would take place in two stages with roads, infrastructure, and condominiums first, followed by single family homes as needed. All of the housing would be on the Princeton tax rolls, as is the case with other faculty homes in the area.

Amendment of New Plan?

The Princeton Battlefield Society has contended that the amended plan constitutes an entirely new plan with a whole set of environmental implications rather than, as the IAS avers, a simple amendment to a plan that has already been approved.

“It is in the nature of building plans to be amended and to argue that any change makes it necessary to go back to square one would be a very inefficient use of municipal time,” said Mr. Masten. “I believe that the planning board is regarding this as an amended plan.”

“Regardless of whether this is a new plan or an amended plan, it is still a destruction of a national historic resource,” Mr. Afran said Tuesday.

A Little History

The Institute’s long-standing plans for faculty housing are described on its website (www.ias.edu) which notes the residential nature and its role in the creation of the Princeton Battlefield State Park, through the sale of its land to the State of New Jersey for the purpose of Battlefield preservation.

In 1959, the Institute donated the former Mercer Manor portico that now stands on the northern part of the Battlefield as a memorial to the unknown American and British soldiers who died there. In 1973, the Institute sold a further 32 acres to the state, increasing the size of the Battlefield Park by 60 percent. According to the IAS website, this sale was made on the basis of a specific commitment by the state in 1971 that the Institute’s field east of the new Battlefield Park boundary could be used as the site for new faculty housing.

“The Institute has been a great steward of its lands,” said Mr. Dijkgraaf, referencing the preservation of the Institute Woods and its support of the Battlefield Park.

After the Planning Board meets next Thursday, the Institute will resubmit its amended plan to the DRCC. But since there is now no encroachment on the DRCC stream buffer, it is expected by the Institute to be reviewed by staff and passed without further ado.

After that, the Institute’s housing plans will go before the Mercer County Planning Board. And the story will continue.