June 2, 2021

PU Plan for Prospect Ave. Meets Resistance

By Donald Gilpin

A Princeton University plan to move a former eating club building and demolish three Prospect Avenue homes is meeting with widespread resistance from local residents.

As part of the University’s “East Campus” development plan, the project would raze three University-owned Victorian houses (at 110, 114, and 116 Prospect) and move the Court Clubhouse building at 91 Prospect across the street to the location formerly occupied by the three houses, making room for the new Environmental Science and Engineering and Applied Science complex on the south side of Prospect.

An organization called Save Prospect Now has initiated a petition at change.org/saveprospect, calling on the University to revise its plan in order to keep the Court Clubhouse building in place and preserve the three Victorian houses. The petition also urges local citizens to attend meetings of the Special Historic Preservation Commission on June 7 at 3 p.m. and the town Planning Board Hearing on June 17 at 7:30 pm., where Princeton University officials will be seeking site plan approvals and zoning variances to complete their plan.

The petition, with about 200 signers as of noon on Tuesday, June 1, claims that “none of the moving should be necessary.” It goes on to criticize the University’s construction plans for “inserting a large incompatible building and landscape, thus irreparably harming the Historic District and Prospect Avenue aesthetics and streetscape.” Moving the Court Clubhouse across the street would take it out of Princeton’s Historic District.

Several letters in this week’s Town Topics Mailbox reflect and elaborate on many of the concerns voiced in the petition.

In a May 18 memo, Princeton Planning Department staff noted their concern with the University plan and proposed an alternative. “Considering Sustainable Development, historic preservation, and the priority of preserving and enhancing housing opportunities in Princeton, staff is concerned that three viable residential structures are being razed in order to move a contributing element of the Prospect Avenue row of eating club buildings from its current location,” the memo states.

“The University should consider retaining 91 Prospect Avenue on the southerly side of the street and incorporating it into the new ES-SEAS complex,” the memo continues. “This would allow for the three large residences (110-116 Prospect Avenue) to be preserved and renovated for housing.” 

The nonprofit Princeton Prospect Foundation, led by Board Chair Sandy Harrison, Board Member and Architect Karl Pettit, and Historic Preservation Consultant Clifford Zink, has issued a 19-page report calling on Princeton University to “develop a design for the ES+SEAS Development that follows National Park Service Policy by keeping the Court Clubhouse within the Princeton Historic District and preserving three historic houses to maintain the unique character and architectural significance of Prospect Avenue for the benefit of present and future generations.”

The change.org petition further states, “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.’”

The petition goes on to note that the University has nearly 15 acres available for the East Campus project and that there is already a vacant lot adjacent to 91 Prospect with frontage for access to the proposed East Campus.

The petition contends that the University proposal continues a trend of the University’s encroaching on residential neighborhoods, demolishing older homes, and replacing them with new academic buildings. “Already in the 2010s, multiple historic homes were torn down for campus development on adjoining Olden Street and on Alexander Street,” the petition states. “The proposed construction on Prospect would be another encroachment into the residential areas near Fitzrandolph Road and Broadmead Street, and would establish a precedent for new departmental buildings to creep further onto Prospect with the moving or demolition of other homes and clubhouses owned there.”

The Court Clubhouse ceased to be an eating club in 1964. It became a non-selective, University-managed dining facility named Stevenson Hall in 1969, and it currently houses the office of the University’s dean for research.

Deputy University Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss, in a June 1 email, supported the University’s plan and noted, “We are pleased to have the opportunity to share the process and thinking behind this project with the Historic Preservation Committee and the Planning Board at their upcoming meetings.”

He added, “The University’s plan, developed in close consultation with historic consultants, will provide much-needed new facilities for Environmental Studies and the School of Engineering and Applied Science while preserving the historic structure now at 91 Prospect.”

Hotchkiss stated that the University would be open to initiating a process to request modification of the boundary of the Historic District “to include 91 Prospect at its new location.”  He continued, “It is important to note that the structures at 110-116 Prospect are not in any historic district. And while 91 Prospect is in the New Jersey and National Register-listed Historic District, our plan does not trigger federal, state, or local review.”

Hotchkiss emphasized the University’s commitment to preservation, adding, “The University takes great pride in its beautiful, historic campus and has restored and preserved approximately 80 historic buildings and landscapes on campus and in the adjacent neighborhoods in the past 20 years. In planning campus construction, we seek to balance the distinctive sense of place on campus with the need to advance Princeton’s teaching and research mission.”

He also pointed out that the University is working with Princeton Prospect Foundation to restore the historic Prospect Avenue streetscape and will be providing 84 new trees to support that effort.