June 12, 2019

Cohen Gives Status Report On Proposed Seminary Plan

By Anne Levin

In a status report to Princeton Council Monday night, June 10, Council member David Cohen addressed ongoing efforts by Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) to redevelop its Tennent-Roberts campus to create 105 two-bedroom apartments for student housing. The proposal has been the subject of concern among some residents, who want Council to deny the Seminary’s request.

An ad hoc committee of the town’s Planning Board has been studying the request and holding public meetings with residents of the neighborhood for the past nine months, hoping to develop a concept plan. The main question is whether the Tennent campus should be declared an area in need of redevelopment.

Cohen reported that the Seminary has proposed a hiatus in the ad hoc committee process, allowing for time to come up with “creative solutions which will satisfy the broadest cross-section of Princeton residents,” he said in his report. “We applaud their desire to continue working with the community for our mutual benefit.”

PTS announced a proposal in January of 2017 to study the possibility of a comprehensive master plan that would consolidate activities on one campus in Princeton. Currently, there are residential buildings behind MarketFair in West Windsor. Plans would involve renovations of some buildings and construction of the new apartments. The Seminary owns 30 homes in the neighborhood, which is part of the Mercer Hill Historic District. Mercer and Stockton streets, which border the campus, are considered important gateways to Princeton.

Three residents of the neighborhood, including former Council member Jo Butler, spoke against the proposal during the meeting and have written letters to local news outlets stating their position. They said that the proposed development is out of character with the residential neighborhood, at odds with the Princeton Master Plan, and would overwhelm the current residential neighborhood in terms of size, scale, and density. Traffic on neighborhood streets would increase.

“They contend that the concept plan grants excessive benefits to the property owner without any compensatory benefits to the town and the neighborhood. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Cohen said in his report.

On Tuesday, Cohen said, “I think a lot of their upset is over the density of the proposed development. I emphasized that the redevelopment process gives us a lot of control over the design specifics, which zoning does not.” The design is “making a lot of gestures to protect the neighbors,” he added. “We’re taking a form-based approach. We’re taking design into account and not just sheer numbers.”

“I would also like to put to rest rumors that have been floating lately that the Seminary is making financial contributions to the town to ‘buy and approval’ and assure the public that such rumors are simply not true,” he said. “The facts are that the Seminary has made a $100,000 escrow payment, as any developer would be required to do (whether in a redevelopment process or a conventional land use application), to cover the costs to the town of overseeing the process.”

Cohen’s report concluded with the question: “Does this development represent a departure from what is on the site currently? Of course! But unless we encase Princeton in amber, change is going to happen, and the process and results of this planning exercise have so far been exemplary, and we expect even better results as the search for solutions continues, setting a wonderful precedent for how future projects can be managed in sensitive locations throughout the town.”