July 7, 2021

University Plan Faces Continuing Controversy

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Planning Board (PPB) is scheduled to continue its hearing on Thursday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. on Princeton University’s controversial application for a variance to move its 91 Prospect Avenue building, the former Court Clubhouse, to a site across the street.

The University plan would open up the area on the south side of Prospect for construction of a “gateway” to its new 666,000-square-foot Environmental Science and School of Engineering and Applied Science (ES+SEAS) complex. The movement of the 91 Prospect building would also result in the demolition of three Victorian houses on the north side of the street.

Extensive discussion at a June 7 Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) meeting and at the most recent June 17 PPB meeting focused on a relatively small portion of the project, the part that impinges on Prospect Avenue, with most speakers opposing the plan as historically, aesthetically, and/or environmentally damaging to the street and detrimental to the community.

The HPC ultimately recommended unanimously that the PPB turn down the University’s variance application. The June 17 PPB meeting ended after about four hours with a number of participants still waiting to speak.

Several speakers suggested that the University should redesign its Prospect Avenue entrance to the ES+SEAS complex to incorporate the 91 Prospect building and preserve the historic character of the street. Historic preservation consultant Clifford Zink and others have urged the University to follow past examples of working with the town and its concerns on controversial development projects in order to achieve a positive resolution for both parties.

Following the last PPB meeting, Princeton Future, an independent community organization, offered an invitation to the Princeton community and Princeton University to help resolve the disputed issues “in an inclusive and transparent forum.”

Encouraging “early and ongoing community participation,” Princeton Future stated, “We all want a healthier, sustainable, more beautiful Princeton — why not cooperate through trust and sustained communication to safeguard our common interests?”

Princeton University expressed appreciation to Princeton Future for its offer, but emphasized its intention to continue to focus exclusively on pursuing the planning board process. With its applications pending at the PPB, Princeton University Deputy Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss stated, “it would be inappropriate to engage in outside dialogue under these circumstances in order to avoid confusion with the planning board process, preserve the integrity of the public record, and facilitate a fully public, transparent discussion.”

Hotchkiss stated that since last fall the University had convened virtual neighborhood meetings and meetings with leaders from the Princeton eating clubs and the Princeton Prospect Foundation to discuss plans to preserve the 91 Prospect building and the new construction plans. He also noted that the project has been discussed extensively at HPC, PPB, and Site Plan Review Advisory Board meetings.

Princeton University architects, planners, and other representatives have presented the ES+SEAS project as one of the University’s most important building projects in decades in creating “a world class facility to attract and retain some of the best minds in the world.” They have also argued that the 91 Prospect building cannot be repurposed and that the only way to save it from demolition is to move it across the street.

A petition opposing the University’s project, initiated by local residents at change.org/saveprospect, had collected more than 1,200 signatures as of July 6, and a Save Prospect Coalition made up of local residents, University alumni, and Princeton Prospect Foundation has been created. Local media have also received a number of letters to the editor on the subject.

The online petition to the University emphasizes the rich history associated with the three Victorian houses, criticizes the University’s “encroaching into residential neighborhoods,” and urges the University to do “a bit of thoughtful redesigning” in order to “maintain the unique character of Prospect Avenue for the benefit of present and future generations.” It also encourages readers to attend the July 8 PPB meeting to speak up in opposition to the University’s variance application. The link to the meeting can be found at princetonnj.gov.