April 13, 2016

Making History: Council Approves Witherspoon-Jackson

It was an historic moment. On Monday evening after more than three hours of public hearings and significant controversy and debate among Council members, the Princeton Council passed, by a 5-0 vote, an ordinance to create the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic Preservation District.

Though acknowledging pros and cons of the ordinance and the uncertainties of its impact on the community, councilman Bernie Miller strongly urged the creation of this “unique historic district.” “If not now, when?” he questioned. “It’s time to move forward. This neighborhood is important because of what happened here. Witherspoon-Jackson is recognized as a place with a story to tell. We need to recognize those residents who are already well known and those who are not well known. The time to recognize that is now.”

Council President Lance Liverman listened from the audience but recused himself from the discussion and vote because he owns property on Quarry Street in the neighborhood.

Other council members expressed a number of concerns about the ordinance, both before and after about 25 members of the public voiced their opinions on designation of the historic district. Almost all the speakers supported the idea of the Historic District, and most urged approval of the ordinance, but warnings of “unintended consequences” and the need for more preparation were expressed repeatedly.

Citing the possibility of increased expenses for homeowners, councilman Patrick Simon cautioned, “Our goal of recognizing history and our goal of protecting people may be in conflict here.”

Despite his worries that the council needs to do more work to investigate the impact of the ordinance, to impose more specific guidelines and to explore how to mitigate possible costs, Mr. Simon acknowledged his support for the importance of the neighborhood and the spirit of the ordinance, and he eventually voted in favor.

Council member Jo Butler also hesitated before supporting the ordinance, with concerns about costs and the lack of a full discussion among the council members amidst all of the public comment over the past few months.

Some discussions questioned the boundaries of the District and the possibilities of exemptions for particular properties, but the Council approved the existing boundaries, which were introduced on March 10 and supported unanimously by the Planning Board last Thursday as compatible with the Master Plan.

The one, apparently uncontroversial exception, an oversight the Council agreed to amend at their April 18 meeting, will involve removing from the historic designation a pathway in the cemetery. Other appeals for exemptions may be heard at a later date.

Witherspoon-Jackson, now Princeton’s 20th historic district, was originally developed as an African American community as a result of segregation and discrimination. African-American residents were later joined by Italian, Irish, and Hispanic families and others. Wise Preservation Planning consultants and the town’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) both recommended historic designation for Witherspoon-Jackson, which, according to HPC, includes 395 properties.

Speakers during the public hearing segment of the meeting emphasized the spirit of community among residents, the vitality of the area, the rich history, and the importance of preserving that history.

Citing the difficult lives of many residents of Witherspoon-Jackson through history, Princeton Human Services vice-chair Leticia Fraga noted, “The historical designation is an affirmation of that struggle. The designation will be a proud moment in Princeton’s history.”

Shirley Satterfield, long-time resident and historian, whose family has been in Princeton for six generations, recounted some of the rich history of the Witherspoon-Jackson District and noted how, in the 19th century, “They walked through Jugtown to ratify the 14th Amendment. Let us not have to walk through Princeton to get this 20th historic district.”

Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller affirmed, “This is the right thing to do. This neighborhood deserves the same protection that other historic districts have. I hope the advantages to the neighborhood will eventually win over those who are against it.”

“It’s been a long process, Mayor Liz Lempert concluded. “This is what democracy is all about.” Thanking the audience for making the year-long deliberations “such a meaningful process,” the mayor added, “It’s wonderful that the neighborhood turned out. It’s been wonderful to feel the love for each other and for the neighborhood.”