May 18, 2022

If Older Buildings are Lost as Part of Redevelopment, They are Gone Forever

To the Editor:

Further to the letter “Hoping that Residents Can Weigh in Before Some Downtown Sections are Changed” [Mailbox, May 11], there is much to be said for being cognizant and respectful of the existing buildings that are a crucial part of the Princeton community that we share. All citizens should be able to appreciate the character, history and continuity of the buildings that comprise the unique neighborhoods that make this a special town to live in. I emphasize that Princeton is a town — not a city — and should remain so. The history and character embodied in all the older buildings here are important to recognize, honor, and care for. If they are lost as part of redevelopment, they are gone forever. Think for a moment about a structure you have observed for years that one day you see demolished, then replaced by something bigger, more generic, cheaply built, and devoid of character. Who does not feel some loss at such diminishing of a neighborhood?

Some will observe about an old building that it looks “run down,” or “has become an eyesore,” or (from a developer lacking imagination and with a singular focus on profit) that “‘we do not see how this can be saved/incorporated into our plans.” The fact is that historic buildings, both grand and modest, are usually built with quality and to last. Many suffer from benign or strategic neglect, by owners who are disengaged from their remaining value or are seeking to profit from their sale. The truth is that in many enlightened parts of the world, both in small pockets of our country and in much of western Europe and elsewhere, the reuse of older buildings is very commonly and successfully achieved, benefiting their occupants and communities. Buildings can be thoughtfully restored, improved, even added to, as they are adapted to the needs of our time.

Another important and undeniable fact is that buildings produce a carbon debt that harms our planet. At least half of the carbon emissions of a building occur during its construction (embodied carbon), the balance as operational carbon during its life; demolishing a structure, only to build anew, results in another embodied carbon debt (in addition to the carbon emissions associated with demolition, landfill, recycling, transportation, and harm to air quality). These unnecessary carbon emissions are indefensible in the 21st century! The latest such threat to Princeton is the requested imminent demolition of the Tennent and Roberts Halls and Whiteley Gymnasium by Princeton Theological Seminary, with no development plan announced and no public comment allowed. This is simply inappropriate!

I urge town officials to pause all demolition of existing buildings, pending an independent engineering analysis of condition, allowance of public comment and their encouragement of any redevelopment of such properties to incorporate their adaptive reuse. Princeton (and our planet) will benefit from such an enlightened approach to development, while our neighborhoods will maintain a recognizable continuity and an enhanced quality of life for us all.

Christopher Olsen
Alexander Street