June 23, 2021

PU Prospect Ave. Plans Remain Unresolved 

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Planning Board’s June 17 meeting adjourned after about four hours, with a dozen participants still waiting to speak and Princeton University’s application facing ongoing resistance from the community, as it seeks a variance to move the 91 Prospect building, the former Court Clubhouse, to a site across the street, where three Victorian houses will be demolished.

The Planning Board will continue the discussion and move towards a decision at its meeting on July 8.

The University continues to insist that moving the Court Clubhouse building is the only way it can effectively proceed with the creation of its Environmental Science and School of Engineering and Applied Science (ES+SEAS) complex south of Prospect Avenue.

Many community members, including a number of professional architects, planners, and preservationists, opposed the Prospect Avenue portion of the University plan as historically, aesthetically, and environmentally detrimental to the community. Opponents have requested that the University revise its ES+SEAS plans, and the Princeton Prospect Foundation (PPF) has sponsored a petition that has garnered more than 1,060 signatures of individuals in opposition to the University’s plans.

Princeton University, however, has made no sign of a willingness to compromise, arguing the necessity of their current construction plans for the future of ES+SEAS. In answering a request for information about other possibilities if the Planning Board rejects its current application, the University gave no indication that there could be a Plan B.

Christopher DeGrezia, a lawyer, along with University architect Ron McCoy, led Princeton University’s team of about 17 professionals in presenting the case. “The University would like to save 91 Prospect, and we have determined that the only viable option is to move it across the street,” said DeGrezia. “If the application is approved, 91 Prospect will have a new home. It it’s not approved, 91 Prospect will be demolished, which will be unfortunate because the University has gone to great lengths to save it.”

DeGrezia argued that the ES+SEAS complex was one of the University’s most important building projects in many decades, “a world class facility to attract and retain some of the best minds in the world,” and he noted that that complex demanded “a lot of space requirements and programmatic needs.”

McCoy added that the Court Clubhouse building could not be repurposed or updated and was too small and inaccessible in design to be able to fit in with the plans for the new complex.

McCoy and DeGrezia also rejected the Princeton Historic Commission’s June 7 decision to recommend that the Planning Board deny the University’s application. McCoy and DeGrezia asserted repeatedly, “There is no regulatory authority for historic review of this project.”

PPF Board Chair Sandy Harrison noted that the PPF was “profoundly concerned” about the proposed moving of the former Court Clubhouse across Prospect Avenue and out of the Princeton Historic District and demolishing three historically significant houses to make room for it.

“Such a plan in our view would substantially diminish the aesthetic and historic continuity of Prospect Avenue, and it would set a disturbing precedent for the potential future moving and or demolition of other eating clubhouses and buildings,” he said. “Also the University has not presented any compelling reason for this plan, which would harm the public interest.”

Harrison added that the University could achieve its building objectives by using adjacent University land for what amounts to only a small part of the entire project. Noting that PPF’s concerns were supported by leaders of the 11 active eating clubs, Harrison concluded by urging the Planning Board to deny the University’s variance application and to recommend that the University redesign the Prospect Avenue portion of its project “so that the plan respects historic preservation policy and is not detrimental to the public.”

Clifford Zink, historic preservationist, architectural historian, and author of an acclaimed recent book about the Princeton eating clubs, expanded on Harrison’s comments, calling the University plan a violation of National Park Service guidelines and of the Princeton Community Master Plan.

“The University’s past stewardship of historic buildings is in stark contrast to its Prospect development plan that will harm the public interest,” he said. He went on to note examples from the past where the University worked cooperatively with the town to resolve conflicts.

“The University’s current hard line contrasts with previous examples where there was controversial development that the University wanted to do and what resolved the issue was University-town-community cooperation,” he said.  He mentioned the controversial 2005 expansion of the engineering quad, where a compromise was reached after months of discussion, and the 1977 expansion of Frick Chemistry Laboratory, where town and University were able to reach a rapid agreement and William Street houses were moved rather than demolished.   

The PPF petition urges all concerned citizens to attend and speak at the ongoing Planning Board hearing at 7:30 p.m. on July 8.