August 4, 2021

Vision for Witherspoon Street Corridor Highlights Joint Effort Safe Streets Event

By Donald Gilpin

The future of the Witherspoon Street corridor and the future of the Witherspoon-Jackson community were in the spotlight as Joint Effort Witherspoon-Jackson Princeton Safe Streets 2021 moved into high gear on Monday, August 2 with a reception and community program.

“This is a work in progress for discussion and input, not a final design,” said architect and Studio Hillier Principal J. Robert (Bob) Hillier, a Town Topics shareholder, in presenting his plan with PowerPoint, photos, and design illustrations for the restoration of the neighborhood.

“There was a great community here,” he continued. “Shirley [Satterfield] tells the story better than anyone. It was a proud community. What we’re going to do architecturally is return it to being a proud community, where everybody can afford to live and live here nicely.”

In addition to Hillier’s presentation, the program, at Studio Hillier on Witherspoon Street, featured remarks by a number of local elected officials; tributes to Hillier and his wife, Studio Hillier Principal Barbara Hillier; and a mayoral proclamation of appreciation honoring Joint Effort Witherspoon-Jackson Princeton Safe Streets for its contributions to the community over the past 48 years.

In presenting his vision, Hillier emphasized six goals, which he noted were in accord with the goals of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society: to preserve the culture and character of the neighborhood; to retain existing residences (“We’re not going to be throwing people out,” he said.); to promote diversity in the population; to provide housing at a reasonable cost (“This is an anti-gentrification project,” he said, “because we’re going to be providing housing that people can afford.”); to create a sustainable and safe environment; and to increase the sense of community.

Hillier, who owns a number of properties on the west side of Witherspoon Street, pointed out the “cost-burdened” plight of 46 percent of Princeton renters, and he described his solution. He suggested that the creation of micro-apartments with monthly rentals of as little as $950 could be achieved through greater density. 

He went on to show his designs for restoring the Witherspoon Street buildings to their original appearance. “What we’re going to do is accurately restore the neighborhood, going back in history,” he said, and he pointed out that additions would be added at the back, not visible from the street, to achieve the necessary increase in density.

He added that the building at 184 Witherspoon, which was the first public School for Colored Children, after restoration would be named The Satterfield in honor of local historian and Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society President Shirley Satterfield. The second School for Colored Children, on Quarry Street, was restored by Hillier and named The Waxwood after its principal, who was there when the schools were desegregated.    

Responses to Hillier’s plans were strongly positive. “Bob Hillier is a real community treasure, with a wealth of experience,” said Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros. “We can’t be afraid of the word density. This is an incredibly smart solution to creating more affordable housing and preserving the history of our community. Thanks to Bob and Barbara.”

She continued, “It’s brilliant. We’re committed to helping this and other developments that bring about an opportunity for environmental sensitivity and affordability. That’s what smart growth is and we’re dedicated to it.”

Councilwoman Mia Sacks emphasized Hillier’s patience and responsiveness in working closely to respond to municipal and community concerns. “Witherspoon is a microcosm of all the issues we’re facing in town right now, and if we succeed on Witherspoon it will be a model for the rest of the town,” she said. “We have been guided by our village elders who have helped keep us on track moving towards the future while staying true to the values of the neighborhood.”

In issuing a word of caution, Leighton Newlin, Princeton Housing Authority Chairman and candidate for Princeton Council, urged a close focus on who will be living in the new apartments to be built. “We must ensure that we keep diversity in this community, including access to people of color, across the income spectrum,” he said.  “Let’s all work towards more inclusivity, more access, more equity, and more social justice.”

Newlin thanked the Hilliers “for showing us that change, even in a historic district with great legacy and great love, can be a wonderful and beautiful thing.”

Satterfield also praised Hillier’s vision for the Witherspoon Street corridor, emphasizing the importance of restoring the pride of the neighborhood.  “We were poor, but we were rich in spirit,” she said, “and we want to bring that back.”

She discussed the planned restoration of the first Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children. “Robert said, ‘I want to restore it just like it used to be,’ and that means a lot to me because it was my ancestors who were taught in that school,” she added.

Also speaking at Monday’s event were New Jersey Assemblyman and New Jersey Senate candidate Andrew Zwicker, and Mercer County Commissioners Sam Frisby and Andrew Koontz.

Zwicker emphasized Princeton’s influence throughout the state. “What’s been happening in Princeton and Witherspoon-Jackson for the past 40 years ripples out like a stone in a pond,” he said. “We see in the legislature what Princeton does as a community and we try to emulate it all the time.  We know what’s wrong in this country. We know what’s happening right now. Coming together and working together really does ripple out.”

Frisby also noted Princeton’s leadership role in New Jersey. “Gentrification doesn’t have to be a bad word,” he said. “You will lead the way once again for the state of New Jersey to see how you can make sure that historically Black communities don’t get left out of the loop. Continue the fight. Continue the work.”

Koontz urged the community to continue to work together for the goal of health and safety as the pandemic continues. “Please be safe,’ he said. “We’re not out of this yet. If you haven’t been vaccinated, please get vaccinated to help us get out of this.”

John Bailey, Joint Effort founder, event coordinator, and emcee for the afternoon program, summed up the proceedings. “We’ve brought a vision to the table to discuss — a vision of what could be,” he said. “There’s a certain connectivity in this community.”

He went on to describe the event, which drew an audience of about 80 people, as “an acknowledgement of community,” and emphasized that this vision of the future of Witherspoon “may have profound positive effects.”  He continued, “It’s an opportunity to heal the town. When people come and listen to each other, good things can happen.”

Bailey praised Hillier and his architectural creations all over the world. “We’re very fortunate to have him in this community with Barbara, doing this unbelievable work on behalf of all Princeton,” said Bailey.