September 29, 2021

Prospect Ave. Plans Still on Hold; To Be Continued on Oct. 21

By Donald Gilpin

The clash between Princeton University and local community members over the University’s application for a zoning variance on Prospect Avenue continued at last week’s virtual meeting of the Princeton Planning Board (PPB), with dozens of speakers voicing their ideas, opposition, and proposals for compromise. After four hours of discussion, the PPB announced that the discussion would continue at its October 21 meeting, which could possibly culminate in deliberations and a final vote by PPB members.

The September 23 meeting, carried over from July 8, was the third long PPB session concerning Princeton University’s proposal to demolish three Queen Anne Victorian houses on the north side of Prospect and move the former Court Clubhouse building at 91 Prospect Avenue from across the street into their place in order to provide space to construct the entrance to its planned 660,000-square-foot Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (ES+SEAS) complex.

Several different speakers proposed compromises that involved adapting and expanding the former Court Clubhouse without moving it, but the University continued to emphasize the necessity of following its original plans for moving the 91 Prospect building across the street in order to construct a gateway Theorist Pavilion for the new complex.

Towards the end of the evening, however, Princeton University Architect Ron McCoy did offer what many saw as a small but perhaps significant compromise, stating that the 91 Prospect building could be placed on the north side of the street in such a way that one of the three Victorian buildings could remain without being demolished.

Historic Preservation Consultant Clifford Zink, a leader of the opposition who has presented several compromise proposals, expressed some optimism in the fact that the University was willing to reconsider one aspect of its plan, but Zink found that compromise unsatisfactory.

“It’s completely inadequate,” he said, in a September 28 phone conversation. “It’s significant as it’s the first hint of compromise for the University, but it’s clearly not enough. It doesn’t keep Court Clubhouse in the historic district and it doesn’t save all three houses.”

Sandy Harrison, president of Princeton Prospect Foundation, agreed with Zink, noting, ”Saving just one of the Victorian houses is not in line with everything that’s been talked about. The move would still disrupt the historic district and violate National Park guidelines. Anything that involves the Court Clubhouse going across the street is disruptive. We’re glad that there’s a sign of compromise, but we want a compromise that everyone can live with.”

At last Thursday’s meeting, with about 150 in attendance, Zink represented the Save Prospect Coalition in presenting several possible alternatives to the University’s plan. Though he mentioned three options, he placed major emphasis on keeping Court Clubhouse and the three Victorian houses in place, keeping the Prospect Avenue streetscape intact, and sending University planners and architects back to the drawing board to devise an addition to the Court Clubhouse and adapt it to serve the needs of the new complex. 

Most of the public commentary seemed to support the Save Prospect Coalition’s opposition to Princeton University’s application, and many also supported the compromise ideas presented by Zink.

But Christopher DeGrezia, a lawyer representing the University, disagreed. Emphasizing the University’s commitment to historic preservation, DeGrezia dismissed the compromise proposals, claiming that the University had already considered these possibilities.

“The University looked at this initially and then looked at it again and again,” he said. “It doesn’t meet the programmatic needs. There are certain requirements that are needed for the University to continue to be No. 1. That’s what this is about, bringing in state-of-the-art facilities, bringing in the best minds in the world, and you need to meet the spatial and programmatic needs for that. These alternatives just don’t make any sense.”

Following up on DeGrezia’s comments, Keenan Hughes, a planning consultant representing the University, reviewed the zoning variance application, addressed some of the criticisms of the University’s plan, and concluded that “the benefits outweigh the detriments.”  He noted that granting the zoning variance would be the only way of saving 91 Prospect since the University has stated its intention of demolishing the building if it is not permitted to move it.

After his presentation Keenan met with a barrage of angry criticism and questioning from several members of the public, who suggested that he had failed to address crucial issues and had not considered problems with the “larger context” of the University’s proposal. 

Delivering a summary response for the University, McCoy emphasized that the University has a history of being “exceptionally strong stewards of historic buildings.”

He went on to highlight the importance of the ES+SEAS project and its benefits to the University and the world, “a once-in-an-institution’s-lifetime project.”  In support of the variance, he also reiterated that “this project is about saving 91 Prospect.”

McCoy mentioned that he and other University officials had met several times with leaders of the Princeton Prospect Foundation and the Save Prospect Coalition and that the proposed compromise plans “just do not work.”  He continued, “They do not know our requirements. They simply cannot assert that they know how to make a building that we need to make to recruit the best faculty in the world.”

McCoy will complete his presentation at the October 21 PPB meeting. If past performances are any indication, not to mention the 1,658 signatures on an online petition opposing the University’s plan for Prospect Avenue, McCoy will likely encounter some stringent questioning and commentary. After that the PPB should be ready to deliberate and vote to approve or deny the University’s application.