September 22, 2021

Battle Lines Drawn on Prospect Avenue Plans

By Donald Gilpin

The future of the former Court Clubhouse at 91 Prospect Avenue, three Queen Anne Victorian houses on the other side of the street, and the Prospect Avenue streetscape are all on the agenda at tomorrow night’s September 23 meeting of the Princeton Planning Board (PPB).

Princeton University is seeking a zoning variance in order to demolish the three houses and move the 91 Prospect clubhouse building into their place in order to provide space to construct the Prospect Avenue entrance to its planned Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (ES+SEAS) complex. The new ES+SEAS is designed to include four different buildings and to stretch out over 666,000 square feet between Prospect and Ivy Lane to the south.

The University’s plans for Prospect Avenue have met with strong resistance from the community, with a petition in opposition gathering 1,626 signatures at last count and numerous residents voicing criticism and objections at the previous two PPB hearings and in public media (See letters on the subject in today’s Mailbox).

Thursday’s PPB meeting on the Princeton University application, the first since July 8, will provide one more opportunity for public input before the PPB members deliberate and come to a decision on whether to approve the University’s plan.

The University has repeatedly emphasized the importance of its project and the impossibility of completing that project without removing the 91 Prospect building.  A University press release earlier this month stated, “From addressing climate change to developing new ways of delivering vaccines, Princeton’s proposed engineering and environmental studies project will enable breakthrough teaching and research in the service of humanity while enhancing the public experience of the surrounding neighborhood.”

The press release continued, “The four buildings — environmental science, bioengineering, chemical and biological engineering, and an engineering commons — will create a new ES+SEAS neighborhood carefully integrated into the surrounding landscape with strong connections to outdoor spaces.”

Members of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, which voted unanimously to recommend rejection of the University’s application, and members of the public who have spoken out do not question the importance and value of the ES+SEAS project, but they do object to the small portion of the project that apparently requires removal of the clubhouse building to create an entrance on Prospect Avenue.

Many have called upon the University to compromise on the Prospect Avenue portion of its planning in order to keep 91 Prospect in its current location and to preserve the three Victorian houses slated for demolition. Those in opposition claim that Prospect Avenue’s history, its streetscape, and its cultural history are all in jeopardy if the current University plan is carried out.

Sandy Harrison, an architect, the president of Princeton Prospect Foundation, and a University graduate, and Clifford Zink, historic preservation consultant and author of The Princeton Eating Clubs, have been two of the strongest opposition voices. Both have been urging the University to compromise on its project design plans.

“The University has compromised with the community in the past on several occasions when historic properties have been threatened,” said Zink. “It would be great if the University followed up those precedents and worked out a compromise on Prospect Avenue.”

Zink noted one compromise that has been put forth where half of the proposed “gateway” structure could be added to the current 91 Prospect clubhouse building on the adjacent lot owned by the University. It could be designed to be architecturally compatible and consistent in character with the rest of the building and the street, as other University construction projects have done in the past, Zink added.

“The community would be quite comfortable with that,” he said. “It would give the University most of what it wants and save important parts of the town’s history. Seemingly it would be a good compromise.”

Harrison described meetings with University Architect Ron McCoy in late August and on September 1, where “we suggested a few compromise options, something we believe is doable and would still allow the University to accomplish what it wants to in terms of a gateway, but we haven’t heard back.”

Harrison noted that community dialogue with the University should have taken place from the beginning off the project, but “better late than never, and if we can do this it will be enormously beneficial from a town-gown relations point of view if they can compromise.”

He added, “We believe it’s doable. This happens all the time in architecture, where old buildings are repurposed. There are many examples all around the country and in Princeton.”

Harrison pointed out four “compelling reasons” why the PPB should reject the University’s application at Thursday’s meeting: “It violates municipal land use laws; it is not consistent with National Park Service guidelines, even though the University is not legally required to follow them; the HPC has unanimously strongly recommend rejection; and there is enormous public pressure in opposition.”

He added that some sort of compromise could still be possible after the PPB meeting but that the University, if its application is denied, has promised to simply demolish the 91 Prospect building, which it has the legal right to do, and proceed with construction of the ES+SEAS as planned.

Since the PPB last met on this issue 11 weeks ago, the HPC, at an August 30 meeting, has recommended creating a Prospect Avenue Historic District between Washington Road and Murray Place. The commission voted unanimously to recommend to Princeton Council and the PPB that Prospect Avenue become the town’s 21st local historic district, a designation that would not affect the University’s current ES+SEAS application but would have implications for future development projects.

“Whether or not this current situation can be saved, the hope is to prevent future situations and make it much more difficult for the University to do something like this again,” said Harrison. “It’s for the long term.”