October 20, 2021

PU Offers Compromise Plan for Prospect Ave.

By Donald Gilpin

Following several months of increasing resistance from the community — through multiple drawn-out Planning Board hearings, a rebuff from the Historic Preservation Commission, an online petition in opposition with more than 1,700 signatures, and widespread objections through public media — Princeton University has revised its controversial proposal for Prospect Avenue, as part of its planned Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (ES+SEAS) complex.

The original plan called for demolition of three Queen Anne Victorian houses on the north side of Prospect Avenue and removal of the 91 Prospect former Court Clubhouse across the street into their place in order to make room for a theorist pavilion and entrance to the new 666,000-square-foot complex.

Criticism of the University plan has not questioned the importance and value of the ES+SEAS project, but it has objected strongly to the portion of the project that would have involved removal of the clubhouse building and demolition of the three Victorian houses, potentially jeopardizing Prospect Avenue’s streetscape, its history, and the culture of the community.

Following recent discussions with Princeton Prospect Foundation (PPF) and advice from the municipal staff, the University submitted an updated plan to the Princeton Planning Board (PPB) on Monday, October 18, for consideration at the Thursday, October 21 PPB meeting.

The updated plan, according to Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss, involves relocating 91 Prospect to a site across the street but closer to the North Garage than the original proposal, with two of the Victorian houses in question (114 and 116 Prospect) remaining in place and the third (110 Prospect) being relocated to a nearby site.

“Subject to Planning Board approval, this revised location for 91 Prospect allows 114 Prospect and 116 Prospect to remain in place; 110 Prospect will be relocated by the University to a site near the rear of 114 and 116 Prospect,” Hotchkiss wrote in an October 19 statement.

Clifford Zink, historic preservation consultant, author of The Princeton Eating Clubs, and a leader in calling for compromise over the past months, expressed gratification at the announcement of the new plan and appreciation for the concerted community effort to resolve the conflict.

“We’re pleased that the University has submitted a new plan that will preserve all four of the buildings on Prospect Avenue,” he said. “Thanks to all the efforts of the Princeton Prospect Foundation, specifically Sandy Harrison and Karl Pettit, and for all the community efforts, the petition, letters to the media, and often very eloquent public testimony at the public hearings. And thanks to the openness of the Planning Board, the planning staff, and the Historic Preservation Committee — and their openness to community input.”

He added, “All that combined will result in a much better outcome on Prospect Avenue. In spite of the challenges along the way, it’s a good outcome for the community and the University and shows the benefits of working together.”

Zink mentioned that the PPF and the community are in the process of negotiating additional future benefits for the preservation of Prospect Avenue.

In his statement Hotchkiss emphasized that “the new facilities will not only help the University fulfill its educational mission, but are indispensable to its ability to conduct breakthrough research and foster scientific and technological innovations that will benefit humanity and contribute to the prosperity of our state and nation.”

He continued, “We appreciate the Planning Board’s thoughtful review of our application thus far and look forward to its consideration of our updated plan, which will ensure that the building at 91 Prospect will continue to be part of a vibrant Prospect Avenue and will facilitate the University’s important ES+SEAS project. We also appreciate the engagement of the PPF and other members of the community, and look forward to continuing to pursue our shared interest in preserving historic elements of Prospect Avenue.”

Update, October 22:

At their Thursday night meeting, the Princeton Planning Board (PPB) unanimously approved Princeton University’s updated plan to move their 91 Prospect Avenue building across the street to make room for the entrance to the planned Environmental Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (ES+SEAS) complex. One of the three Queen Anne Victorian buildings would be moved to a nearby site, but no buildings would be demolished.

Some details on the updated plan are still to be worked out, but the University also agreed to support the proposal of a new Prospect Avenue Historic District and to rehabilitate the three Victorian houses.

Municipal Planner Michael La Place, expressing the “excitement” and approval of the municipal staff, told more than 60 in attendance at the Zoom meeting that they would be seeing “quite a dramatic tweaking of the original application, and it involves preservation of the affected buildings on Prospect Avenue.”

He continued, “What we’ve seen in this process is that the two Princetons have become one. There’s one Princeton now with a shared set of concerns and ideas and creativity for what can happen on Prospect Avenue. It’s a win-win for town and gown.”