July 14, 2021

PU Prospect Avenue Plan Hearing Postponed; Opposition Continues

By Donald Gilpin

As 11 p.m. approached at its July 8 meeting, the Princeton Planning Board (PPB) decided to postpone to September 23 the continuation of its hearing on Princeton University’s application for a zoning variance.

There were almost two hours of public commentary on July 8, following about four hours at the PPB’s June 17 meeting, with most of the community speakers expressing strong opposition to the University’s application to move its 91 Prospect Avenue building, the former Court Clubhouse, to a site across the street in order to make room for construction of a “gateway” to its new 666,000-square-foot Environmental Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Science (ES+SEAS) complex. Moving the 91 Prospect building across the street would necessitate the demolition of three Victorian houses on the north side of the street.

Princeton University representatives, architect Ron McCoy and attorney Christopher DeGrezia, were not happy with the delay. The University is eager to proceed with its project and has turned down recommendations from the community to discuss a compromise resolution and redesign the Prospect Avenue entrance to its ES+SEAS complex. The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously at a June 7 meeting to recommend that the PPB deny the University’s application.   

“These are significant delays,” said McCoy. “We submitted this project almost a year ago. This is really significant. We’re holding up construction.”

Planning Director Michael LaPlace acknowledged frustration with the lengthy process, but added, “It’s important, of course, for us to hear from the public.” He went on to point out that the PPB has put in many hours recently to hear and approve multiple components of the University’s East Campus plan and has held a number of special meetings to accommodate the University. “We’ve worked really hard to meet these timetables, and we’re trying,” he said.

Planning Board member Mia Sacks noted that the PPB does not have the resources and staff that the University has. “The amount of time that has been spent on University applications in the
past year has superseded everything else, even our affordable housing obligations,” she said. “I think you have to give our staff and planning board some degree of understanding.”

In a July 13 statement, Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss stated, “While we are disappointed to not be able to continue the site plan hearing until the fall, we look forward to the Planning Board resuming review of the application at its September 23 meeting.”

Opponents of the University’s Prospect Avenue plans did not seem to be unhappy with the delay. 

In a July 12 phone conversation, Sandy Harrison, chairman of the Princeton Prospect Foundation, noted growing opposition to the University’s plans. “The town is up in arms,” he said, referring to “eloquent and impassioned commentary” at last week’s PPB meeting. “Now we have leverage. This 11-week deferral gives us extra time that we intend to use to continue to build on the momentum of opposition to this unnecessary plan that will unnecessarily damage Prospect Avenue.”

Harrison went on to emphasize that the University had not made a persuasive case to support its proposal and that it should not have rejected a public offer made by Princeton Future to mediate a discussion on the issues in conflict. He also expressed concern that if the  application to move the 91 Prospect building is denied, the University has stated its intention to demolish the former Court Clubhouse in order to proceed with its plans for the ES+SEAS complex.

Harrison added that he and his supporters object only to the 3 percent of the project that impinges on Prospect Avenue, not to the bulk of the vast ES+SEAS complex that would encompass Ivy Lane and the area south of Prospect. 

Speakers at the July 8 meeting urging the PPB to turn down the University’s application included a variety of local residents with a range of different objections.

Thomas Kaufmann, Princeton University professor of art and architecture who formerly lived in one of the Victorian houses slated for demolition, emphasized the rich history of the three houses. 

“There is historical importance to these houses,” he said, noting that the famous art historian Erwin Panofsky had lived and written many of his greatest works at 114 Prospect in the 1930s.  Kaufmann went on to mention other prominent scholars who had visited Panofsky or lived in one of the three Victorian houses. He added, “It is an important part of Princeton history, a place where Jewish refugees were welcomed and given a place to live and a place to work.”