April 13, 2022

Work Sessions on Two Key Streets Dominate Princeton Council Meeting

By Anne Levin

After considering a request from Princeton Council to further investigate whether it is possible to have a bike lane and underground utilities on Phase 2 of the Witherspoon Street redesign plan, which spans Green Street to Franklin Avenue, municipal staff has concluded that it is not.

“We looked at comments from the community, the PBAC (Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee), and Council, and compiled our findings in a 12-page design report,” the town’s Assistant Municipal Engineer Jim Purcell told the governing body at its meeting Monday night, April 11. “We simply cannot find a way to provide dedicated bike lanes within this limited corridor. It would not be safe for all of our users.”

Purcell added that after a recent meeting with PSE&G, “We now understand that undergrounding utility lines is unfeasible.” Staff is sticking with its recommendation from the Council meeting two weeks ago that a concept that doesn’t include bike lanes and underground utilities be the one to be approved.

Each of the three phases involved in the project comes with a grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The deadline for the second phase funding, which is $625,000, is November 19. Purcell said staff has consulted numerous individuals and departments, including Sgt. Thomas Murray of the Princeton Police Department’s traffic safety bureau; Elizabeth Kim of the Historic Preservation Commission; Municipal Arborist Taylor Sapudar; and others. “All of us spent the last two weeks looking at all the different opportunities and alternatives that could be considered,” he said. “We request that you approve us moving forward with the design on this concept.”

The presentation was part of a work session, and no formal action was taken. The first phase of the project, from Nassau to Green streets, is currently underway. The third phase will cover Franklin Avenue to Valley Road.

Another work session was held on establishment of the Prospect Avenue Historic District, which the town’s Planning Board determined — after much controversy and discussion last year — is consistent with the goals and objectives of Princeton’s master plan. Historian Clifford Zink, author of a book on Princeton University’s famed eating clubs located on Prospect Avenue, made the presentation.

Since the district was first proposed in 1993, four buildings have been demolished and one has been moved. The current proposal includes 17 current and former eating clubs, two residences, an architecturally distinctive and historic wall and gateway, and an apartment building.

At the request of Princeton University, 91 Prospect Avenue will be outside the proposed historic district. The University revised its original proposal for the street, which was part of its planned Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences complex, last fall after plans to tear down three Queen Anne Victorian houses caused much resistance from the community.

Zink noted that the University has agreed to include the Ferris Thompson wall and gate, built in 1911. Like the Fitzrandolph Gate on Nassau Street, it was designed by the prominent architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. It was originally the entrance to the athletic fields, and the annual “P-rade” used to march through it. “So these are very important historic designs that indicate the history of Prospect Avenue,” he said.

The University took down the ironwork several years ago because it was in poor shape, but since then the original drawings have been found. “The University has a project underway to restore the ironwork,” Zink said. “The whole idea of a historic district is not to freeze time and not allow any changes on the street. It is rather to help manage change that comes along in the future; that complements and respects the history of the neighborhood.”

Councilman Leighton Newlin suggested that the historic district designation recognize contributions by African Americans, particularly from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, who have worked at the clubs over the years. Zink was in favor of the idea, and said photos and artifacts could be displayed inside. He noted that there is also a history of musicians, including Louis Armstrong, who played at the clubs but were not welcome to stay in local hotels. Local historian Shirley Satterfield has talked about the African American community taking these musicians in when they played for proms and lawn parties at the clubs, he said.

Also at the meeting, there was a public hearing on the 2022 municipal budget. Council voted to approve the figure of $68.2 million, up approximately $621,000, or .92 percent, from the previous year. The Council also voted in favor of an ordinance establishing a CAP Bank, which Chief Financial Officer Sandy Webb said is a safety net in case it is needed. Details of the budget are posted on princetonnj.gov.