June 16, 2021

Urging Planning Board to Reject PU’s Request for Variance on Prospect Avenue

To the Editor:

One of the factors that the town of Princeton used to convince the then College of New Jersey to move here in 1756 was land, land for expansion. From its initial 4.5-acre lot 265 years ago, the University has grown to about 600 acres today, half on this side of Lake Carnegie and half on the other. While most of this expansion has been on empty farmland, much has been at the expense of existing buildings as described in great detail in Gerald Breese’s 1986 book, Princeton University Land. For example, only the cost of moving or reconstructing the First Presbyterian Church saved it from being demolished or moved like the houses which used to line Nassau Street to its right and left. More recently, the buildings at the corner of University Place and Alexander Road fell to the wrecking ball to make space for the new Lewis Center, and the Osborn Field House at the corner of Olden and Prospect was demolished for the new Maeder Hall.

Now the University seeks to demolish the three Queen Anne Victorians at 110, 114, and 116 Prospect in order to make way for the new ES+SEAS. As other town residents who spoke at the HPC meeting noted, this land accounts for 3 percent of a 15-acre project but has significant impact on this public (not University owned) street. The benefit to the greater community of the University’s project is difficult to see, while the detriment — more historic buildings destroyed and replaced by stretches of gravel and benches out of character with the broad lawns enclosed by stone walls and hedges that line the rest of the street — is obvious. In addition to the direct impact on the street, the number of Queen Anne Victorians in Princeton is small, and demolishing these three would make that number even smaller.

University Architect Ron McCoy’s statement that the University’s 30-year campus plan contains no mention of any intention of the University to expand further in this direction is no doubt true, but says nothing about what the University has done in the past or will do in the future. For example, covenants in the property deeds for the “White City” houses on Fitzrandolph and Broadmead give the University the right to reclaim ownership with a three-year notice. Fifty or 75 years from now, “evolutionary development” may drive the University to reclaim and repurpose that land, as it is proposing to do today on Prospect Avenue.

Planning Board members come and go, community concern waxes and wanes, but the University’s long-term vision marches onwards. I urge the Planning Board to reject the University’s request for a variance and preserve the streetscape of Prospect Avenue for the residents of the town. There is plenty of empty land on the other side of the lake; future expansion should happen there instead of at the expense of the community.

Adrian Trevisan, MSHP
Architectural Historian
Hamilton Avenue