February 1, 2012

Additional Testimony, No Decision on the Fate of IAS Housing Plan

Following a nearly four-hour hearing in front of the Regional Planning Board last Thursday night, the future of the Institute for Advanced Study’s proposal to develop faculty housing on land adjacent to Princeton Battlefield Park remains undecided. Based on testimony from witnesses, opponents of the plan now say that less than half of the site could be legally built upon, while proponents disagreed.

Though billed as an opportunity for the public to comment, the meeting was dominated by legal arguments and examinations by attorneys representing the Institute and the Princeton Battlefield Society. The Battlefield Society opposes the project, saying the land should not be disturbed because it was the site of General George Washington’s counterattack and first victory against the British during the 1777 Battle of Princeton.

The Institute wants to build 15 residences for faculty members on land that it owns next to the Park, behind a buffer zone of deciduous and evergreen trees. The project would sit on seven acres and permanently preserve 60 percent of the tract as open space. But a witness examined by Battlefield Society attorney Bruce Afran said that the IAS has a legal right to build only six houses on the property.

Russell Smith of Hopewell Valley Engineering cited setback rules, wetland buffers, and various restrictions that might apply to the zone, stating that the IAS neglected to take them into account before presenting their plan. “The end result of that [analysis] produced six buildable lots,” he said, “six dwelling units that could be built in this cluster.” Cross-examined by IAS attorney Christopher Tarr, Mr. Smith admitted that the analysis was based on his interpretation of Princeton ordinances, which differs from the interpretation of the project’s designer, architect Robert Hillier [a Town Topics shareholder].

This was the third meeting of the Regional Planning Board in three months to be devoted to the housing proposal. As with the previous meetings, there was a capacity crowd of supporters for both sides of the issue. The Institute wants to build the development because housing in the neighborhood of Springdale Road and Mercer Street has become too costly to purchase for faculty. The housing cluster would include seven single-family homes and eight townhomes, as well as a new road and stormwater retention basin.

Before a grilling by Mr. Afran about the concept plan, Mr. Hillier called the project “a good way to plan, a good way to preserve green space, and, frankly, a good way to encourage clusters.” He used examples of previous clusters he has designed, including The Glen, which contains more than 50 percent green space, and Pond View, which protected its neighboring wetlands.

Among those to speak against the housing plan was Glenn Williams, a senior historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History and a trustee of the Battlefield Society. “It is not the intention of historic preservation to save every blade of grass on a battlefield,” he said. “It is the intention of historic preservation to save the historic acreage of a historic battlefield.” A battlefield is “a classroom, a laboratory,” he continued, adding that the National Park Service has designated the Princeton Battlefield as a “priority one” for being endangered.

Residents who spoke in favor of the plan included architect William S. Greenberg, a former chairman of the Township zoning board. “I urge you to reach beyond the rhetoric and make your determination on the merit” of the proposal, he said, adding, “It isn’t a particular piece of ground, but what occurred there.”

The next meeting of the Planning Board to be devoted to the housing proposal is February 16.