October 27, 2021

Town, Gown Move Forward Together On Plans for Future of Prospect Ave.

By Donald Gilpin

The mood at last Thursday’s October 21 Princeton Planning Board (PPB) meeting was celebratory, as University representatives, PPB, and community members discussed  Princeton University’s updated Prospect Avenue plans. It was a striking contrast to the contentious atmosphere that had predominated in three previous meetings and many hours of hearings over the past four months.

“I’m incredibly thrilled,” said PPB and Princeton Council member Mia Sacks. “Words escape me. How important it is for us in Princeton to find ways to hear one another and listen and to find compromise in areas that were divided and to set a counterpoint to all the division in our country. I’m so glad that we were able to do it in this situation. It’s so important for town and gown to engage in dialogue, to engage with each other, to hear one another and to find compromise.”

PPB chair Louise Wilson agreed. “I too did a happy dance when I saw this revised plan,” she said. “It’s an elegant solution.”  She went on to thank members of the municipal staff and others who had helped to bring about the resolution. ”I am very grateful,” she added. “I was losing a lot of sleep. I know a lot of people were. This was really tough.”

Until last week the University had not been able to make significant compromises in its plans to provide room for the entrance to its planned Environmental Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (ES+SEAS) complex by demolishing three Queen Anne Victorian houses and moving the former Court Clubhouse building at 91 Prospect into their place on the north side of Prospect Avenue. 

Just two days before last week’s meeting, however, University officials, municipal planners, and representatives of the Princeton Prospect Foundation (PPF), which had been leading the growing chorus of objections to the University’s plan, were finally able to reach an  agreement. The clubhouse building would be moved, and one of the Victorian houses would be moved to a nearby site, but no buildings would be demolished.

In little more than an hour on Thursday evening, the PPB unanimously approved the University’s revised application for a zoning variance. 

According to an October 20 memorandum of understanding worked out between Sandy Harrison, Karl Pettit, and Clifford Zink representing the PPF, and KyuJung Wang, vice president for facilities, Ronald McCoy, architect, and Kristin Appelget, director of community and regional affairs, representing the University, the University will support the municipal designation of the Prospect Avenue Historic District, rehabilitate the three Victorian houses, apply to extend the boundary of the State and National Register Princeton Historic District to the north side of Prospect Avenue, and will work collaboratively on a design for the front of the ES+SEAS Theorist Pavilion that is compatible with the Prospect Avenue streetscape.

Eva Martin, longtime Princeton resident, French professor and a Princeton University graduate who had objected to the University’s original plans in earlier PPB meetings, praised the new plan as “the right thing to do, the reasonable thing to do, and also the aesthetic thing to do.”

She went on, “I am grateful, proud, and relieved that my beloved alma mater does what it has taught me and its students to do: to listen, to learn, to give wherever we can, to cooperate, and to continue to seek better solutions. It honors our cultural and human heritage while providing the structures necessary for future scientific innovations.”

David Kinsey, John Heilner, Kip Cherry, James Bash, and Zink, as well as PPF board member Pettit, all of whom had raised objections over the past four months to the University’s original plan, spoke in strong support of the current agreement, thanking all involved in working out the compromise.

Zink praised the “eloquent testimony from everybody who spoke” and everybody who participated. “Everybody has been so open, so open to community participation,” he said. “Thank you for that openness. We think there will be excellent long-term benefits for the community for preserving Prospect.”  Zink, historic preservation consultant and author of an acclaimed book about the Princeton eating clubs, elaborated on his response to the situation in a letter in this week’s Mailbox on page 15.

Municipal Planner Michael La Place, who described the University’s compromise as “quite a dramatic tweaking of the original application,” struck an optimistic note in summing up the many hours and months of difficult negotiation and planning.

“What we’ve seen in this process is that the two Princetons have become one,” he said. “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.”