June 2, 2021

Development Plan Proposal Presents Another Opportunity to Address Issue of Teardowns

To the Editor:

Six years ago, I enjoyed the privilege of having a letter published in this newspaper (“Spike in Tear-Downs Offers Princeton Sustainability, Affordability Opportunity” July 29, 2015) arguing for a more significant and proactive policy to address the trend of teardowns in Princeton. I expressed then and still believe that while teardowns will happen, and McMansions defy any legislation that night curb them the overall community should benefit more from their overall effect on the makeup and image of Princeton. Specifically, I hoped that our local government might follow the example of other U.S. towns on teardowns and impose a fee for such actions in the form of a water hookup or other connection fee that would then make more money available for such causes as affordable housing. Had our elected officials enacted such a policy, Princeton’s coffers by now would have gained millions of dollars from such fees. Nothing happened.

Two years ago, Zoning Officer Derek Bridger called for efforts to “slow down and de-incentivize teardowns on substandard lots.” Changes in zoning arose in Council discussions at that time. Nothing happened.

Now, we are faced with not only the continuation of the teardown trend throughout our town, but also a proposal by Princeton University to tear down three Victorian houses on historic Prospect Street. As an online petition seeking to stop this destruction notes, “The Princeton Historic District on Prospect Avenue (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) has long been considered the jewel of our town, with rows of stately Eating Clubs and charming turn-of-the-century homes. One author has dubbed it, “the most beautiful suburban street in America.” But Princeton University’s ES+SEAS development plan (the “East Campus” project) proposes moving the Court Clubhouse at 91 Prospect out of the Princeton Historic District and across the street, intentionally destroying three lovely Victorian houses — and then inserting a large incompatible building and landscape, thus “irreparably harming the Historic District and Prospect Avenue aesthetics and streetscape.” Almost 20 years ago, The National Trust for Historic Preservation named teardowns in historic neighborhoods to its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Places. In Princeton, nothing happened.

The University’s ES+SEAS development plan proposal presents yet another opportunity to address the issue of teardowns and perhaps even improve overall zoning regulations. The same obstacle exists as it did six years ago: inertia, “the property of a body by virtue of which it opposes any agency that attempts to put it in motion.” Inertia is powerful and at times useful, but without some action now to overcome this enduring inaction in such matters Princeton will continue to experience the demolition of longstanding houses without any compensation to the overall community for the loss in aesthetics and the change in neighborhood composition.

As our ability expands to see beyond the terrible COVID-19 crisis of the last 15 months, dealing with what the character of Princeton moving further into this century deserves immediate attention by local elected officials and — in the case of the proposed Prospect Street teardowns — a willingness from University leaders to listen and entertain alternatives.

T.J. Elliott
Cedar Lane